Throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, there was no rap group more influential than Public Enemy. Hype man Flavor Flav provided the comic relief, while front man Chuck D supplied the jarring social commentary. But a lot has changed since the Long Island crew’s heyday. So when it came time to craft their comeback disc, Rebirth of a Nation, PE enlisted the help of West Coast vet Paris, who not only handles the beats, but pens a bulk of Chuck’s lyrics as well. Despite the outside assistance, the rhyme animals still maintain their political bite.
Taking aim at everything from President Bush’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina (“Hell No [We Ain’t Alright”]) to the growing popularity of cosmetic surgery (“Plastic Nation”), PE hold true to their critical-minded mantra. They even bring back old friends, like Professor Griff on the title track and Sister Souljah, who opens the electric guitar–laced “Hard Rhymin’” before Chuck delivers an urgent message to the people. “Now hip-hop was the gift I lifted up/Loved rap ’til the companies ripped it up/Now the soul is set, we been had like jazz/If you down for change, then they take ya voice away.”
Although Paris successfully manages to mimic the Bomb Squad’s patented PE sound with grumbling bass lines, flat drum slaps and dizzying turntable scratches, his overreliance on dated formulas winds up being the project’s fatal flaw. For instance, “Rise” reinterpolates the whiny horns of their classic “Don’t Believe the Hype,” and the air-raid-horn–inflected “Pump the Music, Pump the Sound” could easily be an outtake from 1988’s classic It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
Thankfully, there are cuts like “Hannibal Lecture” and “Can’t Hold Us Back” featuring dead prez, Kam and Paris, where the music feels fresh without being forced. While Rebirth is unlikely to reclaim Public Enemy’s past glory, it’s sure to satisfy faithful followers longing for a bygone era. —BRETT JOHNSON