Public Enemy #6

Who da man? Duh, The Man: PE takes aim at white male corporate oppression

Public Enemy
He Got Game
Def Jam

No rapper has ever conflated the success of his career and the interests of his race as stubbornly as Chuck D. The flat response to Public Enemy's Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age and Chuck's commercially nonexistent '96 solo debut The Autobiography of Mistachuck was predictable enough--dissing your competitors' skills is one thing, disciplining their behavior another. Yet for Chuck, these setbacks calcified his somewhat contradictory beliefs that: a) "freedom is a path seldom traveled by the multitude"; and b) the masses are in dire need of being prodded down that emancipatory avenue. And so, as the clock winds down toward the two-triple-zero, Chuck D burrows into the Black Nationalist dogma upon which he was weaned in search of an adversary who will capture the public imagination. And what does he exhume but that manipulative white male corporate oppressor known simply as The Man.

Though putatively the soundtrack to the new Spike Lee basketball flick, the sixth Public Enemy album is more concerned with what Chuck calls the "game behind the game," the intractable power structure writing the rule books. Who got game? Who da man? Duh, The Man.

Starting with the realization that the New World Order lives on long after its prophet of doom, George Bush, has been rendered a relic, "Politics of the Sneaker Pimps" places exploitation in a global context, envisioning "corporate hands in foreign lands/Wit The Man behind the man/Gettin' paid behind The Man" and footwear "made... for a buck-eight in Asia." Meanwhile, the NBA is cast as the new slave trade, and the only free agents are the white ones closing deals on the hottest properties. "Sold/Black gold/One strong buck/To the Milwaukee Bucks," Chuck proclaims in the voice of an "auctioneer." Like all pop demagoguery, this is reductive, even a bit paranoid. But the idea of The Man has always been a cannily pragmatic simplification of the complexities of racial/economic control into an identifiable enemy. And as the lame old quip goes, paranoia doesn't mean they ain't out to get you.

So it's no surprise that He Got Game references the most paranoid music of its age. PE's original sonic reducers, Hank and Keith Shocklee, have returned, but our era's constantly mutating RZA virus has infected the Bomb Squad console. In their mystically convoluted way, the Wu Tang are the postpolitical manifestation of PE's defiant hip-hop nationalism. Secret society handshakes replace raised Black Power fists. Densely surrealist millennialism obscures revolutionary rhetoric.

And musically, Got Game's version of urban claustrophobia is mimicked not by police sirens and guitar squalls blasting off like Scud missiles, but bass lines venturing cautiously into a minefield of strings and repetitive keyboard figures. Within these new limitations, the Shocklees (and long-time associate Gary G-Wiz) work to straighten the coiled tension of the mix into a direct hit, but the noise they bring is apprehensive rather than incendiary.

In other words, "There's something happenin' here/What it is ain't exactly clear." It's no mistake that the title track allows Chuck to free associate atop "For What It's Worth" the '60s' most ambivalent political anthem. And if you can stomach Flavor Flav braying "Yo, my man, sing it," to arch-prick Stephen Stills, whose cameo reprises the only astute lyric in his back catalogue, it's an amazing piece of music. Here is an opportunity to step outside the Terrordome into a pastoral retreat of soul claps, acoustic guitars, and a gospel choir that resolves into a hopeful refrain, "everybody knows what's goin' down."

Yet, by Puffily pilfering a recognizable melody, the single is also a commercial hedge. So is "Shake Your Booty," in which a chorus of loose women encourage Flavor to do just that as he brags with glee about "Money busting out my socks." Even Chuck's renewed focus on transnational conspiracies evinces as much pop-market savvy as it does political conviction. Though he hands out detention slips to "younger MCs and new Hammers" and takes pains to decry Sony PlayStations as "the new plantations," most of Game suggests that he has made a calculated career move away from direct criticism of the people who might buy his records.

This might be a good thing. But even if Chuck is taking aim at bigger targets, He Got Game is as unlikely to return PE to prominence as "Fight the Power" was to bring The Man to his knees. Their fans weren't seeking a manifesto for social change, just an excuse to throw your fist in the air and pump it like you really do care.

And anyway, Public Enemy were never as concerned with victory as with the struggle itself. Like the Clash before them, they paid lip service to the doomed fallacy that rage begets revolution while secretly cherishing the belief that defiance is itself liberation. Today Chuck D stands as paragon rather than deliverer. "Behold! The one man million man march," he exclaims, imagining community even in his isolation.

 
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