RBG (Revolutionary But Gangsta)
rom Public Enemy to the Geto Boys to Ice Cube, explicitly political hip-hop has a long history of being aggressive, confrontational and explosive. While Dead Prez have always been confrontational, Revolutionay but Gangsta, a dark and gritty attack on a system that exploits everyone around them, is neither explosive nor bombastic. If Nation of Millions was an explosion from the “prophets of rage,” Revolutionary but Gangsta is a lit fuse, threatening to ignite a revolution from the ghettos to the trailer parks.
Sonically, the album is starkly minimalist, an open backdrop for Sticman and M-1’s witty and world-weary rapping. “Walk like a Warrior”, the first proper track from the album, is dark and claustrophobic; tense string samples and harsh sound effects ride a bass-heavy electro beat. “Radio Freq” is another highlight, an Ice Cube homage that updates his volatile treatise as a string-driven, ululating attack on the limitations of corporate radio programming. Throughout the album, Dead Prez move from bitter reportage, recounting tales of poverty and desperation, to impassioned calls to action. They are "revolutionary but gangsta" and, for the most part, this contradiction inspires and informs the album—revolutionary because they have the high-minded goals of upturning a racist system; gangsta because they favor violent means of revolution. This aesthetic is enhanced by the aforementioned sonics: largely bass-driven and lo-fi, as if Sticman could only afford the cheapest equipment available to create his terse beats. This style is especially effective at the album’s climax, when, as if from the clouds on high, Jay-Z arrives for the remix of “Hell Yeah (Pimp the System)”. Jay delivers a blazing verse that suggests the gritty realism of his Reasonable Doubt days, and Stic’s production, with its jagged guitar line and pizzicato strings, is grainy contrast to the big-budget smoothness of tracks like Jay-Z’s recent single “Change Clothes”. “Hell Yeah” appears on the album in three forms: the original, an extraneous bonus-track remix, and the “so necessary” Jay-Z version. It is an anthem on par with the classic Kanye-produced banger “It’s Bigger than Hip-Hop” from Prez’s debut Let’s Get Free.
Unfortunately, in one sense the track epitomizes the album’s occasional inconsistencies. Dead Prez often do a great job riding the line between the economic and racial politics of their socioeconomic revolution. At certain points, however, they seem unable to separate these aspects, and end up conflating the two. In “Hell Yeah”, the artists describe a situation in which they rob a white pizza delivery boy for his cash at gunpoint. It’s obviously done for shock value—to display the implications of hunger and poverty and the situations that such circumstances can provoke—but at the same time it contradicts much of the “fight the power” politics that Dead Prez claims to support. The pizza delivery boy is not a part of the system; he is a member of the oppressed underclass, a potential ally that becomes a victim. Because of this hypocrisy, the members of Dead Prez become victims of their own politics.
Despite this shortcoming and the album’s occasionally tedious low-end lo-fi production values, RBG is a strong and consistent statement of purpose. Take “W-4”, a touching, acoustic-guitar driven meditation on poverty in which the oppressive hopelessness of lower-class impoverishment is palpable. “Put on my uniform…just a number on a W-4”. In this moment of vulnerability, the desperation and despondency of the poor comes through with great clarity. And it becomes clear why we need Dead Prez.
Reviewed by: David Drake
Reviewed on: 2004-04-28