Pick a Bigger Weapon
hither underground hip-hop? You could easily blame the genre’s stars (Mos Def, Talib Kweli, I’m pointing my 808 at you) for releasing lukewarm albums, but the problem is bigger than that. Because when heads can pick up the new Juvenile disc and get an impassioned, intelligent response to Katrina and “Rodeo,” the appeal of say, Dead Prez becomes somewhat limited. Charismatic, conscious stars like Juvenile and Lil’ Wayne seem to understand that while social critique is part of hip-hop’s tradition and responsibility, so is soundtracking summer BBQs.
This has put The Coup mastermind Boots Riley—long one of the most clever, musical minds in underground hip-hop—in a tough spot. Less overtly political than he used to be, Riley’s fifth album, Pick a Better Weapon, wonders if sending a message and shaking an ass are mutually exclusive endeavors.
“I’m here to laugh, love, fuck and drink liquor / And help the damn revolution come quicker,” Riley states early in the album, and it’s hard to tell if his afterthought revolution is dark cynicism or a relaxed worldview. Complicating things is Riley’s aggressive, veteran funk, parts of which were performed by members of the Gap Band, Maze, and Parliament Funkadelic.
With those kind of contributions, Pick a Bigger Weapon would’ve made a truly killer party album, but two factors hold it back—no one cares about Riley’s politics, and he’s not nearly as clever as he thinks. More accurately, Riley doesn’t give anyone a reason to care about his politics, which often turn, literally, to childish Bush-bashing—the embarrassing “Head (of State),” steals the playground taunt for this gem: “Bush and Hussein together in bed / Giving ‘h-e-a-d’ head.”
Elsewhere, the clueless “Ass-Breath Killers” tackles the widespread problem of brown-nosers. It might serve to add levity to an otherwise over-serious run of political songs, except that Riley is too smart to put that kind of streak together in the first place, and his jokes fall flat anyway. The album’s most intriguing track, “I Love Boosters,” praises the shoplifters of the world—because Riley can get his duds cheap—with a killer hook, but attempts to justify the thievery with a mood-obliterating verse about how the clothes were made by underpaid Asian workers. Riley’s amusing materialism bubbling up is one of the album’s legitimately disarming moments; watching his liberal guilt eat him alive one half-verse later less so.
Strangely, the album’s most affecting statement is a rap-free soul jam hidden at the end of the album. What saves “BabyLet’sHaveABabyBeforeBushDoSomethin’Crazy” from being another limp political assault is guest vocalist Silk-E’s staunch refusal to ham things up. She plays it straight, emoting over molasses strings, “I don’t really wanna fuss and fight / Baby we may have numbered nights / We might never get our money right / We could take off this patch tonight.” Easily one of the best tracks of the year so far, “BabyLet’sHaveABaby” is the political turned beautifully personal, transforming a cartoon apocalypse into the year’s best love jam.
It is this sort of personal empathy that too many of Riley’s statement tracks lack. “BabyLet’sHaveABaby” should’ve closed the album on a warm, emotional note, but a comically aggressive song about soldiers in Iraq and a forgettable slow jam follow it. Which is precisely why Pick a Bigger Weapon is so damnable and frustrating. On “ShoYoAss” Riley turns a lubricated funk hook into a brilliant, non-sensical chorus, even allowing time for the band to stretch its wings after his last verse. But two tracks later, we’re in the middle of the interminable “Mindfuck (A New Equation).” (Guess what? Riley thinks we need a new equation.) Riley, remember, wants to laugh, love, fuck and drink liquor, and help the damn revolution come quicker. When he manages to keep his priorities in that order, he’s Midas. Too often, he flips the script.