Thursday, December 20, 2012

Rap About Rap And The Causes Of Rap: Fear Of A Black Planet Holds Up Well!

The Good: Some socially relevant and intelligent lyrics, Some very cool tunes
The Bad: Some of the lyrics are openly offensive, Some of the music isn't musical.
The Basics: A strong social statement makes for a compelling, if difficult to hear at points, rap album that might well be the best of the genre; Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet is, at least, close.

I don't believe that any genre is so flawed as to be unredeemable. There exist different genres in literature, music, movies, etc. because we are a diverse people and no one genre is so flawed as to be entirely worthless. All serve a purpose, even if that purpose becomes corrupted. So, for example, while I cannot stand post-Cyrus Country Music, I can certainly see value in early Country. And I've long believed there must be some decent rap music. After reading an interview with Chuck D, one of the artists in the band Public Enemy, in The Progressive (reviewed here!), I decided to continue my quest for the ultimate rap album and I turned my attention to early Public Enemy.

Long before Flava' Flav was a punchline on VH-1, he was a member of Public Enemy and they produced an album Fear Of A Black Planet. Fear Of A Black Planet is a highly political album that expresses the frustration of young black youth with the mainstream - primarily white - culture in the United States and it seems as timely today as it was seventeen years ago when it was first released.

There is a lot of prejudice against rap music over the language used. On Fear Of A Black Planet, the words associated with the negative aspect of rap come up. Yes, the "n" word is thrown around and there are songs where women are "bitches" and "ho's." That's problematic, though there are moments on Fear Of A Black Planet when "ho" is used in context - i.e. to mean "prostitute." It's unfortunate that Fear Of A Black Planet uses such terminology and perpetrates misogyny and puts off white culture.

But, if there was ever a place to do it, Fear Of A Black Planet is the place.

This is a rebellious album. The final track explicitly declares, "Fight The Power." Public Enemy's album is often about Public Enemy and the effect the group has had on music and society. Public Enemy is seeking to fight the established order and for the most part, the album succeeds in doing that remarkably well. One of the most effective moments of Fear Of A Black Planet is hearing the blind prejudice people have against public enemy on the track "Incident at 66.6 FM," which is a collection of clips called in to a radio show that treat everyone who listens to the group as degenerates.

There are some insightful moments on Fear Of A Black Planet that resonated in the mass culture. Public Enemy realized that ambulances didn't want to come into predominantly black neighborhoods and they created "911 Is A Joke," which declared ". . . I dialed 911 a long time ago / Don't you see how late they're reactin' / They only come and they come when they wanna / So get the morgue embalm the goner / They don't care 'cause they stay paid anyway . . ." This articulately expresses frustration with the way things are and the group does not get a lot of credit for that.

Similarly, the track "Brother's Gonna Work It Out" is an anthem that urges black men to work together. It does not sound like anything else that is asking for the same result and in that way I believe it effectively reaches its audience. The album deals with themes that include racism, HIV ("Meet The G That Killed Me"), and discrimination of art ("Leave This Off Your Fuckin' Charts"). The song "Burn Hollywood Burn" angrily laments the role of black actors in Hollywood. It's a remarkably cohesive album and while there is a lot of anger, there is a great deal more frustration and the desire for positive change.

On the track Fear Of A Black Planet, for example, the rappers explore, "Man you ain't gotta / Worry 'bout a thing / 'Bout your daughter / Nah she ain't my type / (But supposin' she said she loved me) / Are you afraid of the mix of Black and White . . ." The group is not musical Black Panthers, but they feel and express a disfranchisement and they do it with articulation and emotion in their own style.

So, the subject is not as off-putting as one might prejudicially believe. But the way the music is presented can be difficult. The music that backs the vocals is almost exclusively sampling. Some of it is very musical. Some of it sounds great and takes on the tone of funk and hip hop. Some of it is so disjointed that it is difficult for people who are not fans of rap to hear anything but noise.

Chuck D, who wrote or co-wrote almost every track on Fear Of A Black Planet, is a sharp lyricist and his poems are powerful and very listenable. Chuck D, Flava Flav and Professor Griff (it's unclear from the liner if Terminator X is on this album) rap well and have something to say, even if it's difficult to hear.

There's enough to recommend Fear Of A Black Planet as a musical and sociological album worth listening to. There's enough here for me to listen to more Public Enemy to try to find what I'm looking for. If this is a concept album, it has a noble concept that is still relevant; every group needs to stand and give voice to its grievances.

The best song is the demanding anthem "Fight The Power," the weakest track is "Reggie Jax," though this is a remarkably cohesive and high quality (if noisy) album.

For other rap or hip hop albums, please visit my reviews of:
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below - Outkast
Monkey Business - The Black-Eyed Peas
3D - TLC


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the album and singles reviews I have written!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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