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MUSIC
HE GOT GAME
1998

TEN YEARS AFTER 'IT TAKES A Nation Of Millions...', hip-hop is in a lamentable state. Lame, sugary R&B and flaccid pseudo-soul are the norm and even the most promising gangstas are gunning each other down. Take your pick: tragic or pathetic. Luckily, here comes Uncle Chuck, the stern-voiced sports coach, to whip rap's sorry ass into line.

This is ostensibly a soundtrack to Spike Lee's new basketball-themed movie. Naturally, though, since it also marks a momentous reunion of the greatest rap'n'roll band in the universe, the resulting volcano of noise is a soundtrack in name only. Welcome to The Thoughts Of Chairman Chuck, Part 98.

Business as usual in the turbo-tonsilled polemic department, then. The crucial difference from Chuck's 1997 solo album, though, is that here he is once again flanked by seismic turntable technician Terminator X, hyperactive comic foil Flavor Flav and the legendary Bomb Squad production team. Intriguingly, Professor Griff is now back in the fold after almost a decade in the wilderness for making anti-Semitic remarks. The old chemistry is fizzing.

And chemistry there is. Because although PE now lack that hair-raising car-crash impact which characterised their early albums, Chuck D still possesses the most booming, fear-of-God vocal delivery while his fellow sonic warriors continue to innovate. Thus 'He Got Game' abandons the 'hectic soul' of 1994's 'Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age' for a leaner musical foundation built from string loops, gospel voices and spare, precise samples.

Tellingly, PE have co-opted a few Wu-Tang moves; not stealing their style, more acknowledging the parallels with their own self-sufficient siege mentality. Clan stalwart Masta Killah even guests on the huge, prowling orchestral swagger of 'Resurrection', while KRS-One provides an anchor to the old skool with his edgy diatribe over the swirling harps of 'Unstoppable'.

Elsewhere, Chuck adopts a warm preacherman vibe for the title track, a sublime groove based around Buffalo Springfield's epochal 'For What It's Worth', which climaxes with Flavor's remarkable sermon: "We all come from the divine... love conquers all/This is a wake-up call to all your sleeping souls". Hallelujah, boyeeee. And there's more turbo-gospel verbosity on 'What You Needs Is Jesus', this time with Chuck railing against the "new slave trade" in fire'n'brimstone mode.

Fans of PE's dense, Old Testament conspiracy rants will love 'Revelation 331/3', in which Tupac's slaying, the Pentagon, Louis Farrakhan, Saddam Hussein and (possibly) the Welsh Tourist Board are all bonded in some insane verbal fantasia of apocalyptic malevolence. The musical backdrop is all crackling flames and holy war: the sound of Chuck getting millennial on our asses.

Then again, he reverts to media-savvy street preacher on 'Politics Of The Sneaker Pimps', which takes an unlikely sideswipe at the techno goth gonks... erm, sportswear corporations with their ghetto-targeted marketing. Finally, having kept things light and nimble for most of the album, 'Go Cat Go' piles on the Prodigy-esque guitar thunder like the world ended yesterday. Awesome, fearsome and louder than an angry buffalo with piles.

PE, then, still rock. More importantly, they remain the benchmark against which all rap must be tested - and, usually, found wanting. 'He Got Game' isn't a world-changing album like its ancestors, just a powerful late-'90s rap statement from unconquered heavyweight champions. There's new skool, there's old skool and there's Public Enemy. Turn it up.

Nominally a soundtrack to Spike Lee's basketball drama, but in reality more of an individual album, He Got Game appeared in 1998, just the second Public Enemy album since 1991's Apocalypse 91. Even though Chuck D was pushing 40, the late '90s were friendlier to PE's noisy, claustrophobic hip-hop than the mid-'90s, largely because hip-hop terrorists like the Wu-Tang Clan, Jeru the Damaja, and DJ Shadow were bringing the music back to its roots.

PE followed in their path, stripping away the sonic blitzkrieg that was the Bomb Squad's trademark and leaving behind skeletal rhythm tracks, simple loops, and bass lines. Taking on the Wu at their own game - and, if you think about it, Puff Daddy as well, since the simple, repetitive loop of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" on the title track was nothing more than a brazenly successful one-upmanship of Puff's shameless thievery - didn't hurt the group's credibility, since they did it well. Listen to the circular, menacing synth lines of the opening "Resurrection" or the scratching strings on "Unstoppable" and it's clear that Public Enemy could compete with the most innovative artists in the younger generation, while "Is Your God a Dog" and "Politics of the Sneaker Pimps" proved that they could draw their own rules.

That said, He Got Game simply lacked the excitement and thrill of prime period PE - Chuck D, Terminator X, and the Bomb Squad were seasoned, experienced craftsmen, and it showed, for better and worse. They could craft a solid comeback like He Got Game, but no matter how enjoyable and even thought-provoking the album was, that doesn't mean it's where you'll turn when you want to hear Public Enemy. - Stephen Thomas Erlewine