Wednesday, March 05, 2014

My Top Ten Hiphop Albums - #4

Public Enemy - Apocalypse '91:The Enemy Strikes Back

Lost at Birth3:50
Can’t Truss It5:22
I Don’t Wanna Be Called Yo Niga4:24
How to Kill a Radio Consultant3:09
By the Time I Get to Arizona4:49
1 Million Bottlebags4:06
More News at 112:39
Shut Em Down5:04
A Letter to the New York Post2:45
Get the Fuck Outta Dodge2:38
Bring Tha Noize3:47

    Often an artist will develop a sound and a style over several years, until they come to a point at which their loyal hardcore fans will appreciate their style, but then quickly change their tune once that same sound crosses over to the mainstream audience.  For Public Enemy, that tipping point was "Apocalypse '91... The Enemy Strikes Black". 
    Metallica also released The Black Album in 1991, and both albums have much in common.  Both albums saw the acts releasing them undergo a change in style that brought them more mainstream success, while also alienating part of their longtime fanbase.  In both cases the bands would be vilified for years for "selling out" by their longtime fans, and yet receive accolades for their style from both the mainstream, and their peers. 
    Apocalypse '91 was the recording that, when it came out, established that there was a white audience for political rap music, and thus came high expectations from record companies.  This wasn't the album that white folks "discovered", this was the one they were waiting for, and bought the day it came out.  Edward Furlong didn't wear a Public Enemy t-shirt as John Connor in Terminator 2 because PE was some obscure hiphop group that James Cameron wanted to give exposure; He wore it because it was cool.   While Apocalypse '91 was immediately both vilified by critics, the public bought up every copy that hit the shelves in record stores.  Although Apocalypse was still heavily political, the focus was not as encompassing with regard to race relations, as the media and corporate greed also played a prominent role as lyrical material for Chuck D. Perhaps not coincidentally, as PE expanded their focus into political issues that encompassed more than just Black Americans, the ensemble gained popularity and notoriety from the mainstream.  
    Although production was overseen by Hank Shocklee, the lineup of producers with their hands on the actual product changed slightly for Apocalypse, with Chuck D mostly working with Keith Shocklee, and newcomers behind the board.  The "sound" wasn't significantly different, and neither was the lyrical content. 
    So why does anyone point at this album and say that this is where Public Enemy as "sold out"? 
     The first piece of evidence is "Bring Tha Noize".  Although the track first appeared on It Takes A Nation..., PE re-recorded the song with metal band Anthrax, and included it on this album.  Anthrax, in turn, included it on their next album.  Although the band viewed it as a bridging of the gap in a vein similar to when Run-DMC and Aerosmith teamed up for a cover of "Walk This Way", many PE fans viewed it as PE going pop, or intentionally appealing to whites. 
    Second, the group received mountains of mainstream media attention.  Instead of fringe media attention for the political content, PE instead was praised by the media for tackling tough social issues, and their socially conscious music.  "By The Time I Get To Arizona" was not the first single released from the album - in fact, it was never released as a single.  But the music video and mainstream attention it got alienated some fans.  Here was Public Enemy, producing a song and music video about assassinating the Governor of Arizona for not recognizing the ML King Jr. Memorial Holiday, being called "sellouts" because the controversy was covered on the evening news.  When old white folks started talking about Public Enemy, it became passe. 
    Also compounding PE's street cred was the "right wing" branding of Public Enemy as "race baiters".  Just as Professor Griff had caused controversy with statements in interviews with the media prior to Fear, part-time member Sister Souljah caused controversy this time with many of her statements to the media while representing Public Enemy.  When your hiphop act is being discussed at a presidential debate, there are going to be people that feel the group has gone too mainstream. 
    All-in-all, I think that this album is more balanced than any of their other work from this time period.  The lyrics, especially on tracks like "Shut 'Em Down" and "Can't Truss It", are razor sharp, and perhaps more on point overall than on previous albums.  The music might not be as strong as on Fear, but it is stronger than It Takes  a Nation...  Personally, I think that while this was perhaps not PE's strongest effort, it is perhaps their album with the most staying power.  The shorter length makes the album a bit tighter, because there is less filler.

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