Public Enemy

Rebirth of a Nation

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If the title of Rebirth of a Nation consciously recalls the title of Public Enemy's 1988 masterwork, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, that shouldn't be taken as indication that the music on Rebirth is a revival of the dense sound of Nation as masterminded by the Bomb Squad. Nevertheless, Rebirth is certainly a throwback to the sound of the golden age, when hardcore rap was not defined solely by the sonics or subjects of gangsta rap, and that's a deliberate move on PE's part -- they want to re-create the sound of the time, but not the sound that was identified with them, and in order to do that they've entered into a full-fledged collaboration with Paris, who produced and wrote all of Rebirth of a Nation. This is the first time that Chuck D did not have a hand in writing either the music or the words on a Public Enemy album (he did write some verses on four songs on the record), which is initially disarming, since he's always been the sound and vision of PE. But he explains the project clearly in his liner notes, comparing the album to Muddy Waters' psychedelicized blues on Electric Mud -- Muddy may have been reluctant to work in a rock setting, but it was an artistic challenge, and Chuck wanted Public Enemy to take the same kind of risk. Even if all PE fans may not be pleased with the results, Rebirth of a Nation isn't nearly as divisive as Electric Mud -- Paris to Public Enemy isn't as big a stretch as Chicago blues to psychedelia, after all, and they have an audience more willing to go along with change, which this certainly is. But change is often welcome for artists, nowhere more so than for PE, whose last album, New Whirl Odor, was their first to feel truly tired, something that Rebirth can not be called. Not that it's especially daring sonically -- Paris did construct this as a self-consciously old-school record, dropping in samples of old PE records and adhering to the sound of 1990 -- but the group, particularly Chuck D, sounds engaged by the project, which at the very least makes for a listen that's more gripping than its immediate predecessor. And if the sound of the record is a throwback, Paris' subjects are nervy and politically charged, directly addressing the state of the world in a way few records do in 2006. All of this makes Rebirth of a Nation an admirable effort -- perhaps the music gets a little monochromatic, but that's merely a byproduct of its narrowly targeted goals, and as a whole, it's an ambitious and successful artistic detour for PE. Besides, it's hard not to be impressed by a record that sounds like a blast from the past while playing like a news bulletin from today -- not an easy trick to pull off, but Paris and Public Enemy manage it with Rebirth of a Nation.

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