Written Sept. 18, 2007…
“Whatever happened to solid gold?”
I’ve been listening to this one continuously over the past weekend and I can already say it is one of Public Enemy’s better albums. Maybe not quite in the same league as their late-80s, early-90s heydey (not much is) but definitely their most consistent and focused set since 1999’s criminally underrated There’s a Poison Goin’ On…
Now first off, let me state a few things here. I think it is a tragedy that hip hop seems to dismiss any artist who is no longer considered the “in thing.” Both critics and fans will dismiss them as being irrelevant just because they are not (or no longer) selling millions of records, getting played on the Top 40 stations or continuously getting their videos shown on MTV or BET.
For the past 10 to 15 years, it seems that many critics and fans have had harsh words to say about PE — that they’re no longer relevant, that they’ve fallen off, that they keep repeating themselves and so on. That somehow because they no longer sell millions of albums, they are no longer worthy of praise. Lesser artists have come along to steal their thunder and become big stars. But to me, almost none of the bigger selling artists (with the exception of perhaps Jay-Z, Kanye West, Common and a couple of others) have come anywhere near the intelligence, creativity and consistency of PE at their finest. Most seem to just rap about how great they are, how much money they have, how many cars they own and how many “hoes” they’ve banged. They spend all their time trying to desperately prove how they are “keepin’ it real.”
Whatever happened to the heydey of rap, when PE, BDP, De La Soul, Eric B & Rakim and A Tribe Called Quest ruled the world and the charts? These were artists (in the truest sense of the word) who were always challenging their audiences, lyrically & musically and with creative, innovative production to match. They wrote rhymes that were challenging, thought-provoking, positive and educational. They could even be incendiary at times. Sometimes misguided. But always with thought and heart & soul behind them.
And nobody came out with more intelligence, pride and conviction than the great prophet of rage, Chuck D. To my ears, he is simply the greatest rapper of all time. Nobody could (and still can) command a mic the way he can. He comes on like a biblical preacher spitting lyrics of fury. He could rap the phonebook and make you listen in attention (and awe). I simply cannot understand critics who claim that Chuck fell off his game. I think it is highly unfair to compare every rhyme he comes out with to “Bring the Noise,” “Don’t Believe the Hype” and “Fight the Power.” Sure those are probably his three greatest songs but he has consistently come out with dozens of great songs in the years since. To me that should be apparent to anyone with ears. I think PE’s more recent material more than holds its own against the more celebrated albums in the discography.
It amazes me also that critics will still say that PE was the greatest, most incendiary rap group of all time (in their heydey), yet give them barely a mention these days. All they talk about is how PE is no longer selling records, therefore irrelevant. It seems to me that because PE decided to go underground (by leaving Def Jam) and release records on their own Slamjamz label, the critics (and the mainstream audience) simply ignore them. They say Chuck is just preaching to the converted. And preaching the same old tired message over & over again. Well, what do they expect him to be rapping about? He’s writing about the subjects that have always inspired him. Subjects that meant the most to him. Black pride & unity, racism, corrupt governments & record companies, the sorry state of hip hop and anti-materialism. And all of these subjects are still worthy of exploration. And still relevant (in most cases, unfortunately so). Critics complain that most mainstream rappers only rap about materialism (cars, money, jewelry) or about negativity and violence (drugs & guns), yet complain when Chuck D is rapping about more serious subjects. I guess the fact that he still cares about the world he lives in, cares about his people and wants to see a change for the better is simply not cool these days. But then again, I suppose it never was.
But luckily, Chuck has never let the critics (nor the charts) dictate what he should be rapping about or what his music should sound like. And if doing what he believes in cost him some fans, then so be it. He should be praised for always staying true to his beliefs and his vision. Unfortunately, you can’t say that about many people these days. He should be praised for this, not condemned.
But anyhow, back to the matter at hand — this album. And what an album it is. Great production, inspired rhymes and hooks aplenty. This title has been floating around for a few years but has finally been finished and released. And it was well worth the wait.
Like I said before, PE’s recent albums are all of high quality and worthy of discovery but this album has something extra going for it. Some undefinable quality. Maybe it’s the hooks themselves. These songs are simply more memorable than some of their more recent stuff. Or I should say, there is a higher quantity of memorable songs here. And all of PE’s best songs were always catchy and loaded with hooks, that made the difficult messages go down a bit easier. Also, I think this album simply hangs together better as a complete work of art than the previous few did. The songs flow together brilliantly and have a real sense of unity and purpose.
Chuck proves yet again with this album what a great poet he is. And to me, that’s what his best lyrics have always been — pure poetry, set to music. And it seems Chuck is always at his most inspired when he’s pissed off about something. This time around it’s the never-ending war in Iraq, the rampant misogyny and glorification of violence in most rap lyrics and his bewilderment over the latest phenomenon of anti-snitching in the ghetto.
Right off the bat, the album starts strong with the title track. And it never lets up from there. Chuck is on fire and the best thing to do is to get out of the man’s way. These are soulless times we are living in. And that doesn’t sit well with him, as you can imagine. He’s trying to bring back the “soul” (musically and spiritually).
“Black is Back” is a musical tribute to Run-DMC, by way of AC/DC (even though they were denied access to the use of “Back in Black” as a sample). Again, Chuck laments the lack of real soul on the radio these days.
The single “Harder Than You Think” might be my favorite PE song in many years. That celebratory horn riff running throughout is just amazing. If Chuck is looking to bring back the soul, he (and producer Gary G-Wiz) does so brilliantly with this song. After five seconds, I knew this song was an instant classic. I can‘t get it out of my head. It’s simply that good.
“Sex, Drugs and Violence” is another winner, featuring the legendary KRS-One. These two sound so good together, they should think about doing a joint album in the future. The song is a put-down of the negative aspects of gangsta rap and the phoniness of alot of rappers trying to prove how hard they are. The children’s choir on the chorus is an inspired choice.
“Can You Hear Me Now” deals with the rampant materialism in society, while “Frankenstar” deals with celebrities (and fellow rappers) who are out of touch with their fans and act like they are above them.
“Long and Whining Road” cleverly uses old Bob Dylan song titles to tell the history of PE. This song (and “Harder Than You Think”) talk about how grateful Chuck is to have lasted in the game for 20 years, doing what he believes in, without compromise.
And of course, no PE album would be complete without the contributions of the greatest hype man of all time, the one and only Flavor Flav. At first I thought it was kind of a cop-out for Flav to simply contribute songs from his solo album, rather than write new songs. But he includes 3 of the better songs from the album. And they fit in perfectly. Much better than they did on last year’s Flavor Flav (which seemed to be be all over the place, for better and for worse — kind of like the man himself). Considering that the album was often-delayed and included songs dating back to sessions ten years ago, who knows when these songs were recorded. But like just about everything that Flav records, they sound like they could have come out at anytime in the past twenty years. “Col-Leepin” sounds like a continuation (lyrically) of 1988’s “Cold Lampin’ with Flavor,” with a nod to the Beastie Boys’ “Brass Monkey” (melody-wise). Who the hell knows what he’s talking about. But as with everything concerning Flav, it’s weird and entertaining. Totally “old school.” As is “Flavor Man.” Both songs are great, twisted fun and needed respites from the seriousness of the rest of the album.
Flav is definitely the funniest, craziest, most bewildering man in the history of rap. And that’s why we love him. But the man gets more serious on “Bridge of Pain” which deals with his time at Rikers. He shows that there is more to him than just playing the comedian. And it’s another winner.
There are a few other songs on the album that are not quite up to the high standards of “Harder Than You Think” or the title track and a couple of songs come off a bit preachy but overall How You Sell Soul is probably the most consistent rap album I’ve heard since Common’s 2005 masterpiece Be. So far it seems to be getting ignored by the mainstream media, which is nothing new. But any PE fan will be ecstatic. And any PE fan who jumped off the boat, needs to get back on board – immediately.
Me, I’m going back to listen to that horn riff again.