There's more than a little drama behind "There's a Poison Goin On," the latest from those pioneers of political hip-hop, Public Enemy. Earlier this year, Public Enemy ended its 12-year relationship with its label, Def Jam, due to disputes over the group's posting of unreleased material on its Web site. Public Enemy then recorded the music industry slam "Swindler's Lust," which includes such thinly veiled antisemitic lines as "remember them owned the banks" and "heard they owned slaves."
That track is included on PE's new album, which is being released by the Internet-based record label Atomic Pop. And if that label's claims are true, then "Poison" will be the first album by a multi-platinum artist to be fully available for digital download over the Web (it costs only about $8 but can take up to three hours to download), on an Iomega Zip disk, and in the stores.
But for most fans, what's important is not the many high-tech ways that they can get the album, but simply, is it any good?
Aside from the offensive lyrics, "Poison" is pretty good. Where many former chart-topping rappers try to remain current but end up slipping on watered-down versions of the latest beats, Public Enemy ignores the Southern-bass-bounce sound, the triple-time trills popularized by producer Timbaland, and the skittery beats of the Ruff Ryders' Swizz Beats.
Instead producer Tom E. Hawk creates a trippy low-key brew, mixing rock aggression, hip-hop effects and the eerie ambivalence of such trip-hop acts as Tricky and Portishead. Fans of PE's early work may miss the frantic beat collages of producers the Bomb Squad, but Hawk's stripped-down sound only intensifies the sting of Chuck D.'s lyrics as he rails against the current state of hip-hop, blasting playa boasts and "disco raps" designed simply to make you dance: "You be clubbin' while the world around you is crumblin'." On "Here I Go," he sets himself apart from rap's golden boy Will Smith by claiming, "I'm the reverse of jiggy."
While two flavorless solo cuts by sideman Flava Flav threaten to dull the album's bite, the collection still works because of the spare sonics and Chuck D.'s insights from his vantage as a hip-hop elder. For the album to really succeed, though, it must reach the current hip-hop generation that prefers rhythm and rage to moral authority. And for them, Chuck D. may just come across as someone's dad boring them with tales of how many miles he used to have to walk to school.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8156.)