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There’s no way to say “dying with dignity” in Rapspeak. Just ask Chuck D. As the front man for Public Enemy, he epitomized the pro-black stance of rap in the late ’80s. With PE production crew the Bomb Squad, he crafted some of the most creative music ever to come out of hiphop, including 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, arguably the greatest rap album ever.
A man like Chuck should ride off into the sunset, retire his microphone, and lead the quiet life of an ex-MC. But for rappers, such an end is complete anathema. Hiphop history is full of folks who once reigned godlike over rapdom, overstayed their welcome, and then insisted on disgracing their legacies. Big Daddy Kane was once Rakim’s rival for the title of Greatest Rapper Ever; now he’s just a prop in a Jay-Z video. The Jungle Brothers were once underground legends, but their sorry comeback attempts have permanently sullied their record. Chuck joined these dishonorable ranks back in 1994, when PE released Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age. Besides the satisfying single “Give It Up,” the album was totally devoid of the group’s old energy. Recently, PE was dropped by its longtime label, Def Jam. Although some artists make the independent-recording life look honorable, it’s unsettling to see Chuck reduced to toiling away for small-time outfits.
In his latest effort to stave off forced retirement, Chuck has pulled together Confrontation Camp, a new group with a rap-rock soundand no-name status among contemporary hiphop heads. The group makes a blatant effort to appeal to rock ‘n’ roll fans. It’s not that Chuck is pulling a crossover moverockers are the reason PE’s work has regularly gone platinum. But Chuck’s appeal to them was always unintentional. Confrontation Camp’s debut, Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, makes a concerted effort to identify Chuck with this newly recognized core of fans.
Despite its marketing savvy, Chuck’s new crew is hampered by its clear lack of musical talent. Confrontation Camp sports an ensemble of underwhelming musicians and lyricists. The music is handled by a turntablist and a live band, while PE veteran Professor Griff and relative newcomer Kyle Ice Jason accompany Chuck on vocals. Jason does nothing on the album to make himself noteworthy, and Griff, who was always more a stage prop than a real MC, turns no heads either. Chuck still has his voice, though, and on Objects’ grating tracks his baritone is the only effective instrument.
But the album clarifies why Chuck has been on a downward slide since the close of the ’80s. PE got a lot of attention for its politics. The group’s statements ran the gamut, from calling Elvis Presley a racist to cutting records about jailbreaking to backhanding J. Edgar Hoover’s ghost across the face whenever possible. So PE’s legacy grew around the things the group said, not how it said them or which samples were being played in the background.
Over the years Chuck himself has come to believe the hype, which obscures the fact that once upon a time he was actually a very good MC. In a landscape of smooth Muhammad Ali-style rappers like Kane, Chuck was a Ken Norton. His phrasing was awkward, his cadences off-kilter, and his rhyme schemes utterly unpredictable. But his unorthodox flow folded wondrously into the Bomb Squad’s joyful noise. Cuts like “Megablast,” “Welcome to the Terrordome,” and “Rebel Without a Pause” are almost so dissonant that they test the limits of music.
But at some point, Chuck decided that what he was saying was more important than his artistic acumen. This is the philosophy that undergirds Objects. The album is plenty political, but the MC-ing is so abysmal that it makes you wonder how one of the great rhymers of our time could be slumming with such poor company. Jason’s rhymes are utterly simplistic and, at times, such as on “Jailbreak,” simply puzzling: “Society done fucked up my psyche/Should I rock my Adidas or my Nikes?”
The album’s noisy and chaotic production is clearly Bomb Squad-influenced. But it too is simplistic. Almost every cut is characterized by a loud electric guitar that always seems to be playing the same riff. Objects picks up the Bomb Squad’s love of dissonance, but with its single-minded focus on strings, it falls far short of capturing the Squad’s multifaceted signature sound. The result is a record that plays like a clumsy imitation of the rap-rock aesthetic and puts Chuck into a category that, even at his worst, he has never fit into before: bandwagoneer.
It’s now almost impossible for Chuck’s saga to end in a way that will please PE fans. That Chuck is still dedicated to rapping is apparent, but he lacks the desire to re-elevate himself as an MC. The saddest part is that much of the topical commentary on Objectssuch as “When the S*** Hits the Fans,” a pull-no-punches breakdown of music-industry politicsdeserves to be heard. But Chuck should resign himself to the fact that there are more than a few MCs out there who are better able to articulate the progressive messages he pioneered. It’s depressing to watch him go down like thisbounced from his label, not a hit on the horizon, and a growing trail of bad albums in his wake. Unfortunately, it looks as if Chuck wouldn’t have it any other way. CP