here are several items the average twenty-something white male owns. An alarm clock, a microwave, porn, a stereo, a Playstation, checkered shirts and two Public Enemy albums: Fear of a Black Planet and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Fear and Millions are really all you need -- incredible, galvanizing explosions of serious, literate hip-hop -- in order to appreciate P.E. at the height of their powers. With Millions they defined their sound, with Fear they perfected it, and no Public Enemy release since has sounded as powerful or been as entertaining. More accurately, every release in the last decade has led to Public Enemy becoming less vital and less visible.
Public Enemy’s road to invisibility has been a short, simple, straight one: they have never updated their sound, never experimented, never progressed. The scorching production and bombastic lyrics of early P.E. albums is strikingly similar to the tepid backing tracks and redundant soap-boxing of modern P.E. albums; the only difference being the novelty of the early material -- no one sounded like P.E. because no one could -- and the familiarity of the latter -- no one sounded like P.E. because P.E.’s music was antiquated by the rapid progression of rap music. Hip-hop changed, but the band who gave it its modern shape did not. P.E. ignored g-funk, gansta rap, live instrumentation, alt hip-hop and rap metal, but the people who cut their teeth on Millions and Fear did not: they discovered there was more to interesting hip-hop than sirens and solidarity. Public Enemy seemed either incapable of change or unwilling to admit that putting out two great albums does not exclude you from becoming irrelevant.
Relevance is what Revolverlution seems to be driving at. This batch of new songs, remixes and live versions of classic material is the first in a trilogy of albums that will follow the same format. It is at times exciting, dangerous and experimental, and thankfully is not a return to form. With Revolverlution, Public Enemy has finally stepped into the 00’s.
“Gotta Give the Peeps What They Need” is simply amazing, and raises expectations for the rest of the disc to unnatural heights. Razor sharp, but infused with soulful, Mayfield-esque percussion, “Peeps” is a vibrant, funky, organic track that is as much a pleasant surprise as it is a great opener. The title track follows suit, encompassing deep grooves and lashing wit but tempering the attack with a decidedly mellow vibe. Welcome signs that Public Enemy has finally accepted the fact that their early albums were not perfect formulas but templates for further growth.
Unfortunately, much of the newer material lacks the life and bounce of the first two tracks. “Put It Up”, despite its live drum sound, is the same by-the-numbers P.E. that has harmed the band over the last ten years. Sure, it’s aggressive and smart, but then what? “Can a Woman Make a Man Lose His Mind” is terrible, a flat Flava Flav-led track that is as leathery and tired as Flava’s face; “Now a Daze” is fuzzy and head-bobbing, but the guest mc isn’t strong enough to carry the track; and despite some interesting sounds, both “54321...Boom” and “Get Your Shit Together” disappoint, each song wallowing in repetitiveness and lacking energy. It should also be pointed out that “What Good is a Bomb”, Professor Griff’s take on rap-metal, is desolate musical stupidity, utterly unpleasant dead weight that does all it can to ruin the decent moments on the album. Total shit.
Some redemption can be found in the remixes. Public Enemy’s message remains the same, and so does Chuck and Flava’s delivery, so production plays a crucial part in making Revolverlution worthwhile. The first remix, the Moleman version of “By the Time I Get to Arizona”, is a slow, sticky, static-y dirge. It hardly sounds like P.E. with its crackling, digitized g-funk, but that’s part of the song’s charm. “Shut Em Down (Functionalist Version)” is a slice of jarring atmosphere. The aggressive bleeps and bloops and the potent rhymes create cool juxtaposition, with past glories and modern technology not simply clashing but lending each other some legitimacy as well. “Public Enemy No. 1 (Jeronimo Punx Redu)” attempts the same feat, but the song deserves more than just a house beat and the odd noise pastiche. It catches you off guard, but by the time the Spanish rapping begins it’s pretty obvious this song will sound worse with each listen. “B Side Wins Again (Scattershot Remix)”, however, will not. This bizarre, banging mess of feedback and battering, off-kilter beats sounds like an avante techno Def Jux throwdown. Its tone changes constantly, and despite the unevenness in the song’s sound, it’s as thrilling and strange as anything the band has ever done.
The rest of the album sits idly in the “pointless” category. Live versions of “Miuzi Weighs a Ton”, “Fight the Power” and “Welcome to the Terrordome” seem out of place on an album aimed at modernizing Public Enemy; the two “P.E.S.A.” tracks -- one about staying off drugs, one about Black History Month -- are almost funny; and could someone please tell me why I listened to every second of the unintelligible phone conversation between Chuck, Flava and Big Daddy Kane?
Public Enemy have finally managed to keep current. Revolverlution illustrates that they can adapt to varying song forms, that they are open to technology and that they are still able to craft gripping hip-hop. Unfortunately, they have also kept up with the hip-hop nation by making an album that doesn’t contain enough decent material to justify its near-ridiculous length. Trim some of the fat and this album is a keeper. As it is, this album will rightfully fall victim to another gadget owned by most average, white, twenty-something males: an internet-ready computer.
Reviewed by: Clay Jarvis
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01