Some thought Public Enemy had become irrelevant 10 years ago, but they hadn't. Now, though, they're getting dangerously close...
"I roll with the punches so I survive / try to rock 'cause it keeps the crowd alive."
-- Public Enemy, "Prophets of Rage", 1988
Typecast Public Enemy as "political rappers" and you're missing much of the story. If Chuck D. was only a lecturer over beats, few would hold Public Enemy's music so dear. There was a time when a new Public Enemy album was an event, when on the release date I would ride my bike to the record store, speed home, and spend hours listening, while poring over the lyrics, printed on a black-and-white piece of paper and folded up inside the cassette tape. The next day down the halls of my high school I'd see a huddle of kids looking over a copy of the tape together, or overhear someone asking, "did you get the new Public Enemy?" I remember vividly what the opening moment of Fear of a Black Planet (1990) felt like the first time: the drama and expectation that hung in the air, the way Chuck D.'s voice boomed through the speakers, the way the music's dense, vivid soulscape overwhelmed and invigorated. They were the prophets of rage, aspiring to turn hip-hop into a 'Black CNN', yet their power came not just from what they were saying, but from how they were saying it, and in what musical context. A new Public Enemy album was a devastating explosive, its impact hard to calculate.
4 October 2005: A new Public Enemy album is released, but this time to get it I've got to drive to Best Buy, its sole retailer for the first month. News of the album has come rather suddenly, as a different new Public Enemy album (the Paris-produced Rebirth of a Nation) was pulled from the release schedule and replaced with this one weeks ago. Time has lessened the anticipation level, but still I have decently high hopes. In the '90s Chuck's voice got weaker, and the music sloppier, but Muse Sick in Hour Mess Age (1994) and There's a Poison Goin On (1999) were still powerful albums, filled with ideas. If Public Enemy sounded less focused, that still sort of suited the chaotic feeling of those apocalypse-minded albums.
New Whirl Odor (2005) opens with Al Sharpton praising Public Enemy, followed by the familiar intonation of the group's name ("Pub-lic En-e-my") which signifies that we're jumping into the fire. When the first proper track, the title track, begins, though, it doesn't take long to realize something is in disarray. For one, the track is mixed in an oddly unbalanced way, with some voices coming in louder than others. Flavor Flav in particular is all over the track shouting "Uh!" and "C'mon!", but the level of his voice compared to Chuck's and the brevity of his utterances make you immediately wonder if Flav had anything to do with the track at all, or if old recordings of his voice were spliced in at the last moment, just to leave the impression that the Reality TV star is still an active part of the group. (That suspicion is present throughout the album, by the way, as the only time he says more than a phrase or two is on a freestyle recorded when Reagan was President.)
The message of "New Whirl Odor" is confusing -- you get the impression that it's a dis on the Bush administration, yet the chorus "I smell a new whirl odor" goes unsupported, and Chuck's rhymes are all over the place. He's shouting out to political rappers one minute, and distancing himself from politics in the next; the MC who once rhymed that "the record's to the left and political" now sounds so scared of being identified with a particular agenda that he's "staying to the left of this and to the right of that". He still gets in a few acute barbs, at liberals who think everything was solved in the '60s, for example. But he mostly sounds directionless. And even worse, his rhymes often feel clunky and out of step with the beats, which themselves also seem alternately indistinct and erratic. The sonic synthesis that made Public Enemy famous has become a mishmash that seems almost purposeless, something Public Enemy has never seemed before.
The second track, "Bring That Beat Back", is musically stronger, with a synth hook in time with the beat. Though if the song sounds a bit outdated, it's for good reason. In the liner notes Chuck explains that it and "Makes You Blind" use Abnormal Dubose-produced tracks that Public Enemy rejected back in the day. Unsurprising for a group currently putting together an Archive Series, whose last album Revolverlution (1992) was a mixture of old cuts and new, on New Whirl Odor Public Enemy often sound quite past-focused. "66.6 Strikes Again" is essentially an alternate version of Fear of a Black Planets' "Incident at 66.6 FM", while the 'S1W Stepstrumental' "Either We Together or We Ain't" sounds like it could be a leftover between-song segue from a past album.
So many of the tracks sound both awkward and familiar, as if pieces of various old tracks were spliced together. Rock guitars abound, and often they accompany a dumbing down of Chuck's lyrics. He relies more on clichéd phrases, repetition, and ultimately meaingless wordplay (rhyming "Iraq" with "I rock", that sort of thing) than in the past. And he'll say something like "capitalist, communist, terrorist / swear to God I don't know the difference" which ends up being more confusing than enlightening (is he just trying to put down capitalism, or parallel the red scare with war-on-terror anxiety, or does he really see no distinction between the three?) On a track like "What a Fool Believes", and even on the forceful though simple Moby collaboration "MKLVFKWR", Chuck the hard rhymer is reduced to repeating slogans and empty phrases, a far cry from his lyrics of the past, which even on paper, separated from the music, stand up as a thing of beauty, to be analyzed and emulated.
Where once Public Enemy's songs were filled with ideas at every turn, or the very least took one subject and probed it in a supremely articulate way, here it takes until the seventh and eight tracks before they have anything distinct to say which can't be summarized in one sentence or slogan. "Makes You Blind" and "Preachin' to the Quiet" are both decent enough additions to the Public Enemy catalogue, with funky if mellow tracks and some potent though still slightly out-of-step rhymes from Chuck. "Preachin'" is the album's first truly compelling track, due mostly to the level of melancholy present in Chuck's meditation on greed and violence in today's hip-hop culture. The chorus, "Maybe I'm just preachin' to the quiet," has a sense of gentle resignation to it which is rare for an MC who usually exudes confidence.
Professor Griff is a more dominant presence than Flavor Flav this time around. Though he delivers the real-world political angle that theoretically could have given the album the urgency it needs (attacking the nexus between corporations and the US government, for example), he's still not much of an MC. He sounds more like a stuffy college professor trying to rap for the first time, as he always has. Flavor Flav might not be the most verbally gifted of MCs, but his real presence on the mic is missed. Chuck seems overall less capable as an MC than usual (though his voice itself sounds physically stronger than on recent albums), and the album's overall sense of seriousness cuts against it when Chuck has so little of real substance to say, at least in comparison to any other Public Enemy album.
Though some of the later tracks, like "Revolution" and "Y'all Don't Know", are so indistinct as to take the steam even further from the album's already depleted sails, the final track, "Superman's Black in the Building", takes New Whirl Odor out on a high note. It still isn't up to Public Enemy's past standards, but its mix of groove and old fashioned preaching at least demonstrates a desire to push their music forward. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that "Superman" has more energy to it than the rest of the album combined. There's moments throughout New Whirl Odor when Chuck D. seems to aspire to become a James Brown-style powerhouse showman (he oddly keeps rhyming about jumping back and kissing himself, to give only the most blatant example), but this is the one place where he's nearing it.
Over a solid base of funk, with hints of Funkadelic plus soulful saxophone, Chuck aims pointedly at greed and apathy in the Black community, trying to move people to act, and dissects the concepts of heaven and hell in the process. He shifts partway through from rhyming to preaching, and then lets the funk tell the rest of the story, as the band pushes the song along 'til past the 11-minute mark. It's spiritual, visceral, sincere: a dynamite song in the context of New Whirl Odor and an exciting addition to Public Enemy's overall discography. It hints at new directions Public Enemy could go in. Even with its length the song has enough urgency to it that it feels more like a beginning than an ending. It makes me wish that the album was only now beginning, that the previous 14 tracks were just warm-up. It make me imagine a New Whirl Order that proceeds from this starting point in a dynamic and fresh direction, one more in keeping with Public Enemy's progressive, innovative past.