HOW YOU SELL SOUL TO A SOULLESS PEOPLE WHO SOLD THEIR SOUL?
How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul
How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul (Slam Jamz) Some two decades after making their first appearance, the onetime kings of rap flip through old scrapbooks with the latest in their bid for the nostalgia market. Reuniting with Gary G-Wiz of the Bomb Squad, Public Enemy brings the 1990 noise by recording 19 new tracks that embrace the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic of their classic "Fear of a Black Planet." The results are surprisingly encouraging. Flavor Flav, having been turned by VH1 into even more of a caricature (if possible) than he already was, reminds PE fans that he is still a competent and efficient hypeman, and Chuck D sounds angrier and rawer than he has in years. Still fuming about hip-hop getting hijacked by wannabe-gangsters, Public Enemy joins forces with KRS-One for the bitter anti-gangsta rant "Sex, Drugs, and Violence." "Long and Whining Road," in contrast, is a four-and-a-half-minute trip down the band's memory lane, with a tearjerking acoustic guitar running underneath reminiscences of tours and albums past. For a group that released its first album when Ronald Reagan was president, the men Public Enemy still have that fire in their bellies, even while taking a moment to glance backward. [Saul Austerlitz]
By Matthew Kantor
Why isn't Chuck D. comparable to Reverend Butts or Sharpton? Like collaborator KRS-One did with Hip Hop Lives this year, he stopped merely griping about Hip-Hop's deterioration and has instead offered a compelling alternative to rap's violent mainstream malaise. How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul? (Slam Jamz) is a funk laden dive into a joyous recovery of "soul," but with dark twists toward the album's end, endemic of troubled times. Chuck goes from happily exclaiming, "Love life like I just don't care/5,000 leaders never scared/Get up still a beautiful idea" over Stax horns on early track "Harder Than You Think" to warning non-believers about the "Eve of Destruction" over psychedelic guitars, in cold distaste, as the disc winds down.
The album may be a dieing format, but P.E. still makes them, meant to be soaked in and unlocked as a statement. Unlike many current artists and their audience, a mutual mental retardation is not assumed (see crib notes for T.I. Vs T.I.P. or Jay-Z talking about "Getting his grown man on"-as Chris Rock said, "It's what you're supposed to do"). The early part of the album is indeed celebratory and the rhymes at times are notably deliberate. On the rock throwback "Black Is Back," Chuck sounds like a carbon copy of hero DMC, but it feels great. On "Sex, Drugs, and Violence," he and KRS paint chilling portraits of 2Pac and Jam Master Jay's murders, and indict what's happened in music and society in the ensuing years. However, like the best P.E. music, the righteous medicine goes down easy because of twisting rhymes and a funk soundtrack that make giving in easy.
How You Sell Soul then becomes authentically strange and urgent with tracks like "Long and Whining Road" where Chuck name checks his favorite Bob Dylan albums, enmeshed in a P.E. history lesson atop the riff from "All Along the Watchtower." "Eve of Destruction" and "How to Sell Soul (Time is God Refrain)" follow the same serious and dark-creative route, balancing out the earlier tracks. Flavor Flav redeems himself in the middle of it all with "Bridge of Pain," a first person account of his trip on a NYC Corrections bus to Riker's Island. Between that and the obligatory but refreshing Flavor as court jester moments, it makes one wonder whatever happened to that solo album (G Wiz should produce it) and if Flavor of Love was really that awful.
It's difficult to write about Public Enemy in the present tense. To the younger generation, discussion of their immense creative and confrontational magnitude sounds like overstatement. To former true believers, honestly, nothing may ever hit like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back or Fear of a Black Planet. But as Chuck says himself, "With Fight the Power comes great responsibility." He's never stopped caring about his art or his people, one in the same for him, and the results are still strong and interesting, heartfelt and worth feeling.
The Enemy Within
by Ben Greenman August 20, 2007
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"How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul???" (SlamJamz);
In the late eighties and early nineties, Public Enemy was the only band that mattered. It was, as these things always are, an unsustainable position. Since 1999, amid the reality TV and the radio shows, Chuck D and company have continued to put out records, but they've been a mixed bag-sometimes exciting, sometimes exhausting jumbles of new material, live tracks, and remixes. Now, for their twentieth anniversary, Public Enemy has released "How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul???" (SlamJamz), and, from the portentous title to the extensive liner notes, it's clearly intended as a return to the group's heyday.
In some respects, it is. Both the title track and the lead single, "Harder Than You Think," wed Chuck D's hammering vocals to dense soundscapes full of surging horns, spoken snippets, and sneaky synthesizer lines. "Sex, Drugs & Violence" employs a children's chorus and a guest verse from KRS-One for a sharp (if familiar) critique of gangster rap. Elsewhere, though, the record is overworked or undercooked. "Black Is Back," which was originally built around AC/DC's "Back in Black," had to be reconceived for legal reasons, and now it sounds less like a throwback to "Walk This Way" than like the hundredth retread of "99 Problems." And, if Flavor Flav's tracks sound like they were cut out of the wreck of his solo album, it's because they were.
But the sonic power of the record is only half the issue. There's also the question of the group's continued relevance. After two decades of saying so much about black America, white America, and America in the world, is there still more to say? "Revolution means change," as "Harder Than You Think" helpfully explains, but it can also mean spinning in place. What if the world doesn't change fast enough? Does a sermon-especially one preached mostly to the choir-have an expiration date? The record is full of these anxieties, and, while they sometimes produce windy self-congratulation ("The Long and Whining Road"), more often they amplify the overarching theme of consciousness and who should heighten it: "At the age I am now and if I can't teach / I shouldn't even open my mouth and begin to speak," Chuck D says on "Can You Hear Me Now?," though the tone is more Socratic than prideful. The album's closer is an affecting jeremiad against video games, bling, ahistorical media, and spiritual shortsightedness. "Time dictates the agenda here," Chuck D howls. "Time is God, time is God, time is God, time is God." ♦
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