Chuck D once boasted that rap was “the black community’s CNN”, a boast echoed by the Reverend Al Sharpton on the intro to Public Enemy’s New Whirl Odor. Despite hip-hop’s elasticity of form, it can seem that its popular variants have more in common with the Murdoch-helmed Fox network, celebrating an unwavering orthodoxy of materialism.
It’s a doctrine that Chuck D self-consciously seeks to redress, and New Whirl Odor is the latest attempt to do just that. With the fireball extremes of the Bomb Squad now a distant memory, Chuck D and perennial comic turn Flavor Flav enlist the services of a team of differing producers, with a tenebrous fug prominent throughout.
And little gloomier than the ‘live’ eleven and a half-minute exposition of Superman’s Black In The Building, a tripartite meditation on what Chuck D sees as the illusion of black unity. Once Chuck D proclaims “that we went from gods to niggers / from queens to bitches/ who in hell told you we were in heaven?”, the repetitive bass refrain plays out, assisted by muted guitars and horns, the artful lethargy of the outro in stark contrast to PE’s familiar gunpowder charge.
It’s a pessimism that recalls nothing less than the Last Poets grim foretelling of the disintegration of the black community When The Revolution Comes. Despite the fatalist air, ‘Superman…’ is New Whirl Odor’s most singular success.
The battles Public Enemy fought since the all-points-bulletin of Yo! Bum Rush The Show are no doubt as ongoing as they were in 1987, but hip-hop has been unforgiving of one-time innovators given to recalling past glories. Just like Superman’s Black In The Building, New Whirl Odor’s best moments are when it sounds the least like Public Enemy of yore.
The ‘stepstramental’ of Either We Together Or We Ain’t works by restraint, while Revolution cleverly references Dennis Brown‘s classic of the same name while offering an unflinching slow-motion examination of the continuing ‘fight against oppression’, the guest rappers Free and Society distracting attention from Professor Griff’s otherwise undistinguished soundtrack.
DJ Lord Aswod does enough on Check What You’re Listening To to make Terminator X almost unmissed, his switchblade skills and the dread augury of the rolling piano sequence make this tribute to the late Jam Master Jay one of the record’s sinister highlights.
What A Fool Believes relies on clich� in word and in sound, knee-jerk sloganeering (“make ’em spread the wealth / as long as you got your health”) saddled with the kind of looped metal histrionics that were considered pass� by the time of Ice T‘s dreadful Bodycount.
Despite the welcome addition of The Sounds Of Soul on backing vocals, Makes You Blind fares little better. Chuck sounds punch-drunk, slugging at shibboleths (Playstation, McDonald’s, George Bush) rather than the knock-out thrusts of yore. Worse, he sounds unforgivably off-the-beat, a mortal sin for an MC. Not that Abnormal’s over-polite mix helps much, those selfsame beats as blunt as Jeremy Paxman on speed.
For a band that that thrived on focus, New Whirl Odor sees Public Enemy at the proverbial crossroads. There’s too many guest-spots (Moby appears on the ‘Olympic theme’ MKLVFKWR) and shifts in sonic presence to make New Whirl Odor anything like as cuttingly abrasive as 1999’s There’s a Poison Goin’ On, let alone their early meisterwerks.
Radio PE is still broadcasting, but if it is preaching to the quiet, New Whirl Order is unlikely to wake them up. For fans, there’s a bonus DVD if you can’t get enough.