Political content is always controversial in pop, but Public Enemy rock the pop world’s love boat more than any other current artists by mixing slamming beats with the plain talk and raw feelings of the nation’s unempowered — primarily blacks and youth. On Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black, rapper Chuck D and comic sidekick Flavor Flav bring a fresh, preacher-deacon urgency to social issues. They put the news in the center of the dance floor — and their performances are so stimulating that their ideas have to be seriously considered.
The first three Public Enemy albums established them as rap’s most innovative group, uniting their radical point of view with unusual song structures and an amazing variety of sampled music and sound effects. On Apocalypse ’91, PE sharpen their verbal and musical attack. They take on the pernicious effects of media control (”How to Kill a Radio Consultant”); resistance to the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday (”By the Time I Get to Arizona”); and the controversy over marketing malt liquor almost exclusively to blacks (”One Million Bottlebags”). PE’s criticism is precise: ”Who’s sellin’ us pain/In the hood another up to no good/Plan designed by the other man.”
On the album’s strongest cut, ”Can’t Truss It,” PE tie their contemporary concerns into African-American history. Chuck’s rap connects the history of the slave trade to modern society’s class- and race-based structure: ”Look, here come the judge…/I can only guess what’s happnin’/Years ago he would’ve been the ship’s captain.”
The song’s title is a double allusion — ”truss” can be heard as black dialect for ”trust,” conveying Public Enemy’s distrust of authority, or as ”truss,” a bind that symbolizes restraint on the group’s self-expression. On the song, Chuck uncovers history in the present: ”I got a story that’s harder than a hard-core cost/Not ‘The Holocaust’/I’m talkin’ ’bout the one still goin’ on.” That’s not a denial of any group’s suffering but rather a challenge to ”official” history that ignores African-American pain.
When Chuck calls out, ”Here comes the drums!” on ”Truss,” he invokes the music’s African rhythmic base. Between the syncopated verses are melodic interludes that spell the song’s march. This contrast between African and European musical modes parallels the ambivalent feelings that are part of the black American experience.
Apocalypse ’91 gives us PE’s hardest-hitting music ever. Hank Shocklee’s Bomb Squad production turns the rhetoric into kinetic sensations. Keening noises rise out of steamroller grooves. Two tracks, ”Lost at Birth” and ”Rebirth,” reassemble key sounds and words from PE’s past into edgy, jazz-metal abstractions.
At a time when some West Coast rappers concentrate on unfocused anger and profanity, this album finds Public Enemy theorizing about black discontent with a close-up, street-life focus, while insisting that rap be more than the whine of crybabies or thugs. Apocalypse ’91 has an emotional and intellectual sweep, advancing political awareness along with fellow feeling, enlightenment with pleasure. A+