Public Enemy set the bar so low with their post-‘91 output – despite the occasional bright spots on B-sides-er Greatest Misses and the He Got Game sndtrk – a midget couldn’t limbo under it. It’s difficult to listen to How Do You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul? without getting antsy in the pants-y; I mean, compared to New Whirl Order, this new shit sounds like Illmatic. But really, how does this record stack up on its own terms? I’ll give it a Meh-plus. How Do You Sell is like a message-rap marathon: It starts with a biz-ang (the title track, “Harder Than You Think”), lags-lags-lags for a long spell, then closes out the stretch run with enough excitement to make the whole endurance test worthwhile. Barely.
I can’t help but wonder how much better this album would be without the annoying quirks Public Enemy fall victim to time and time again. It’s still confusing to me that PE are so dedicated to mixing rock into their rhymes. “She Watch Channel Zero” and the Anthrax-bolstered “Bring the Noise” set the standard for seamless rap fusion, but they were isolated instances that stood out from the rest of PE’s canon (at the time) like a missing piano key. Chuck, Flav, and the crew are making a conceited effort to cawk-rawk at this point, forcing flaccid “Fight For Your Right to Party” synth-tar into “Black is Back” and “Frankenstar” without any regard for taste or, for that matter, class. Remember, hybrids can be fun for the whole family, but get it wrong and it can poke your ear out.
Not to mention the biggest PE problem of all: the loss of Terminator X. Without his ingenious sample-heavy DJ savvy, Public Enemy are not Public Enemy, and probably shouldn’t even use the moniker. No one seems to give The Other Black X (sorry Sadat) his due, despite the fact that his work on PE’s first three albums is easily as important as the tag-team rapping of Chuck D and Flavor Flav. X’s innovations are what held the holy hip-hop album trinity – Yo! Bum Rush the Show, It Takes a Nation of Millions... and Fear of a Black Planet – together as Albums, rather than song-cycles. For anyone who spent way too much time listening to those records, it’s acutely obvious something is different; missing.
And that’s to be expected, I suppose. As fame and critical success ascends, groups splinter, their principles get rich and rudderless, and shit starts to happen. Maybe an arrest or two, a racist comment here and there, and suddenly a can’t-miss act is facing tall odds of ever capturing the magic again. That’s where the eagle-eyed (and -ear’d) determination of Chuck D has paid dividends, for no matter who is behind the boards and no matter how left-of-taste Flavor Flav strays, D stays down-as-Dilla. His voice, which falters in a live setting – trust me – sounds as good in the studio as it ever has, and his lyrics are sharp and vital. He looks comfortable behind a podium, as he was speaking at colleges and playing the role of hip-hop scholar for a year or two, but he hasn’t sounded this at-home behind a studio mic in awhile. He’ll never match his prime, but at least he’s chasing it, focusing his righteous fervor on the Usual Suspects: the industry, the government, and bbbbbBush (sample: “Stick a dick and bush in the world and watch it twirl”), and he doesn’t sound like an old man while he’s doing it; more like a wise-but-weary soldier who’s seen many-a battle.
Flav? Well, he’s... Flav, but he does seem to be taking the same anti-aging serum Chuck has, albeit twice the dose; he sounds literally exactly the same as he did on classic cuts like “Cold Lampin’ With Flavor” and “Megablast.” His flows also make about as much sense as they used to, but that’s part of his game, and I could never fault him for it. I’ll fault him for selling his soul to reality TV, setting African Americans back 15 years, and telling concert-goers to tune in to his crappy show during PE concerts, but I won’t fault him for failing to speak coherently. And by god, it’s good to have this guy back in the rap game – few performers, especially hip-hop performers, bring as much innocent joy to the table as Flav.
And so I find myself much more Into this record than I thought I’d be. Although one of PE’s three focal points, Terminator X, is gone, Chuck D and Flavor-mother-fucking-Flav still have vitality pumping through their veins, enough to elevate a two-decades-old rap institution above the level most hip-hoppers reach once they hit middle-age (if they even try; many seem to prefer acting). How Do You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul? probably won’t sell, but does anything of even remote quality, save R-head, sell these days? Naw.
1. Who You Sell Soul To A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul??? 2. Black Is Back 3. Harder Than You Think 4. Between Hard And A Rock Place 5. Sex, Drugs & Violence - (with KRS-One) 6. Amerikan Gangster 7. Can You Hear Me Now? 8. Head Wide Shut 9. Flavor Man 10. Enemy Battle Hymn Of The Public, The 11. Escapism 12. Frankenstar 13. Col-Leepin 14. Radiation Of A Radiotvmovie Nation 15. See Something, Say Something 16. Land And Whinning Road, The 17. Bridge Of Pain 18. Eve Of Destruction 19. How To Sell Soul? (Time Is God Refrain)