Picks and Pans Review: Pawns in the Game
When Griff, Public Enemy's former "Minister of Information," left the group in March to go solo, it was hardly a creative decision. PE has spent a lot of time over the past year distancing itself from Griffs blatantly anti-Semitic remarks. Apparently, the rift with Griff grew too wide to manage.
It turns out that Griff was not as vital to the group as lead rapper Chuck D (Carlton Ridenhour), Flavor Flav (William Drayton) and deejay Terminator X (Norman Rogers). While Griffs ex-bandmates have set about creating a powerful musical and street-level political statement. Griff still sounds as if he's just railing at the world.
Fear of a Black Planet (Def Jam/Columbia) seethes with the pent-up frustrations of black youth. As America's inner cities continue to reel under the weight of a multitude of problems, PE seems intent on supplying a rallying cry for the disadvantaged.
It's sometimes daunting to try to unravel the messages from this assortment of scratches, recorded messages, funk riffs and other sound bites of rap. Even though the themes are familiar—racial inequality a call for black self-determination—PE's militant stance is most articulate when they take aim at problems one issue at a time.
"They only come and they come when they wanna/So get the morgue truck, embalm the goner," rages Flavor Flav on "911 Is a Joke." an accusation that inner-city ambulance crews are suspiciously slow in responding to medical emergencies.
Hollywood producers are always an easy target, but "Burn Hollywood Burn" is sharply pointed in its rejection of the movies' attitude toward black actors. "For what they play, Aunt Jemima is the perfect term/Even if now she got a perm," sings guest rapper Big Daddy Kane about roles for black women. Any number of rappers try to knock down stereotypes, but PE does it with precision, not demolition.
Clever wordplay and the ability to mix things up are exactly what are missing from Griffs Pawns in the Game (Skyywalker). He actually sings on one track, "Suzi Wants to Be a Rock Star." Although his vocals are routine, it's a nice hybrid of rock and hip-hop. Usually, though, Griff just backs you up against a wall and unleashes a flurry of insults that sometimes reach too far, thereby diluting his anger. "The Word of God Griff on Duty" is written as a letter to the President, where Griff charges a generic Chief Executive with a laundry list of crimes. But most of the accusations are incoherently expressed. And what does the following line mean: "You've developed the Anti-Christ mechanism/Entitled the Universal Product Code"?
The overtly political tones of both records separate them from the silly finger-pointing gestures of other rappers. Yet Public Enemy clearly has made the more effective statement. As unsettling as Fear of a Black Planet may be, particularly for white audiences, Chuck D & Co. argue articulately (by pop music standards, anyway) that the notion of a kinder, gentler nation is based more on empty phraseology than on reality.