Public Enemy - Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear on No Stamp

by Daryl Worthington Rating:9.5 Release Date:2012-11-12

It's only with the arrival of new music from Public Enemy that I realise just how much I've missed them in the five years since their last album. Thankfully then, they're releasing two albums this year to celebrate 20 years of existence. With Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear on No Stamp, they've delivered a sprawling, epic album, confronting social and political themes which make it startlingly modern and vital. It's also seriously raucous.

One of Kurt Vonnegut's last books, the part-memoir, part-rant Man Without a Country, carried references to many of the unsung or controversial heroes of American history, notably Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrant workers and anarchist organisers sentenced to death in 1927 for murder, with historians still debating the fairness of the trial, and arguing over the likelihood of their actual guilt. (It's suggested that they were vilified for their anarchism rather than an actual crime.)

At several points through None of My Heroes… lists are read of Public Enemy's forgotten heroes, among them Sacco and Vanzetti. Like much of Vonnegut's work, this is an album which wants to highlight the plight of the disadvantaged, prejudiced and vilified in society, and celebrate those who defend their cause; as Flavor Flav says on 'Catch the Throne', those "Brothers who resist are considered a threat, from Sitting Bull to Malcolm X".

The album's second track, 'Get Up Stand Up', features guest vocals from Brother Ali, a practicing Muslim and, like Public Enemy, a rapper who often deals with issues of racial prejudice in his lyrics. His line "I was raised by the enemy/ and ever since its been my identity", shows that Public Enemy choose individuals with common ground and belief to their own in their ever expanding sphere of collaborators. Like Vonnegut, Public Enemy have a unique ability to deal with these heavy social and political issues in an engaging way.

From the start of the album there is a new-found clarity both lyrically and musically. 'Run Til It's Dark' opens with the line "Bomb drop", perfectly reflecting the sudden hit of bass, drums, guitar and scratching that follows. Lists of statistics are reeled of over the maelstrom produced by the Bomb Squad, making it clear from the outset that this is not background music but an album to be played loud and absorbed. 'I Shall Not Be Moved' is built on looped, jagged guitar samples and dirty basslines, with eerie droning brass added to the mix later on. The whole thing comes across like an apocalyptic James Brown. Musically, there is more variety in the producing on this album, but there is also a new crisp directness which compliments but never over-shadows the lyrics.

There is an almost novelistic feel to this album in terms of its structure and delivery. The tracks regularly return to earlier ideas, gradually expanding on them and placing them into the broader context of Public Enemy's view of the world. For instance, positive references are regularly made to the Occupy movement, as well as Public Enemy's 'Tea Party Beef', leaving the listener in little doubt of their allegiances. The album's final track, 'WTF', brings all the album's themes together: social inequality, government corruption and the banal monotony of the music industry. Its melodic guitar-lines and mid-tempo beat almost give the impression of a power ballad. But the visceral energy in the delivery mean this is no sombre reflection, but a bit-between-your-teeth call to action, an apt conclusion.

It's easy for music with such heavy social and political themes to descend into cliché or to come across as a misguided attempt at a 'new direction'. Fortunately, Public Enemy have been doing this a long time, and have successfully moved with the times in the issues they confront. There is a wit and elegance to Chuck D, Flavor Flav and their various collaborators' delivery which keeps them constantly engaging and leaves the listener wanting to re-listen to tracks to fully absorb their meaning.

With cutting lines such as "Never have so many been screwed by so few", their rhetoric is always entertaining as well as challenging. After 20 years of existence, Public Enemy have proven their music is just as vital and relevant as it has ever been, and just as thrilling to listen to.

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