As one would expect, Chuck D’s latest album ‘The Black In Man‘, released on August 1st, 2014 (his 54th birthday) proves itself to be very hard-hitting and message driven. At this stage in his career, having served as the front-man for the both legendary &
revolutionary Public Enemy, a 2013 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Chuck D has nothing left to prove musically, nor can anyone question his importance to Hip Hop culture. Gaining popularity in a period of Hip Hop’s evolution ranging from roughly 1987-1993, where Afrocentric Rap was celebrated among Hip Hop purists as well as the commercial mainstream, Public Enemy’s music is typically laced with overt themes of self-empowerment, pro-blackness, & truth-seeking. Chuck D has never been one to sugarcoat his messages or dilute the meaning of his words with metaphors and word play. In other words, Chuck D calls it like he sees it. To highlight that point we needn’t look further than his infamous bars from the 1989 smash hit, “Fight The Power”.
Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist, that sucker was simple and plain
[Flava Flava] Motherfuck him and John Wayne
Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps
With that in mind, my biggest takeaways from Chuck D’s latest solo effort is that I appreciate its intent as well as the strength and truth within the album’s central themes more than I actually enjoy it. That’s not to say it’s a bad work. I do like some of the tracks for more than their messages. Predictably deviating from many of today’s Hip Hop sonic trends, musically it’s refreshing to hear the throwback break-beat and boom-bap sounds used in tracks such as “Spread The Words“, “Get It Right Or Be Gone”, & “Leave With Your Own Mind”. Balanced with the Rock/Punk/Rap fusion of “Grudge” & “Ican” along with the call and response driven & James Brown inspired “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”, which borrows heavily (albeit respectfully) from the original, and the Mavis Staples assisted “Give We the Pride“, which features a funky disco groove, results in a sonically diverse album that steers completely away from the EDM, Trap, & New Age West Coast Funk sound that’s dominating popular music these days. Even harmonicas are featured at certain points throughout the album and its interludes, adding a blues / gospel feel to that fits perfectly with the album’s overall retro & empowering feel.
On “Get It Right Or Be Gone”, Chuck D raps that “we all hearing no balance in the air”, a direct reference to a lack of diversity that exists on the commercial radio waves when it comes to Rap music. Too much of what major radio pushes is confined to the musical trends mentioned above, and that’s not to mention thematic norms rooted in overt hyper-sexual, materialistic, and street violence driven concepts and lyrics. So again, as an alternative to with what industry has decided to flood the market, Chuck D’s latest certainly has purpose and appeal.
Let me take this moment to state that I personally have no issues with strip club jams, gangsta rap, and tracks about yachts and Benzes. Partying, boasting, booty-shaking, and urban strife have all had their place in Rap’s evolution over the years and have provided some of my favorite artists and songs. I just think in today’s Hip Hop climate there’s too much of it. Some of it I dig, some of it I think is garbage, but the larger point is that there’s a noticeable lack of parity in what’s being pushed to the masses as Rap music. I’m of the mindset that it’s dangerous and damaging to portray Rap music as ONLY ratchet and thug, especially when groups as diverse as Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Salt & Pepa, Run DMC, & DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince have generated their fair share of money over Hip Hop’s lifespan. There used to be parity in Rap music. One could go hardcore with “Straight Outta Compton” one moment and then groove to “Rump Shaker” the next. In the absence of that parity, you’re potentially left with a younger generation of Hip Hop soldiers whose musical beings have been over-saturated with twerking and gang-banging and thus now demand that in their Hip Hop, resulting in many artists sacrificing at minimum musical creativity (and often an intellectual and empowering approach to their song-writing) in favor of producing more of that ratchet, thugged-out content because therein lies their best earning potential. It’s a problem Chuck D addresses and attacks throughout ‘The Black In Man’.
Simply put, there are no shortage of striking, empowering, and knowledgeable bars on this record. Some highlights include, “rapper does good, they hardly pay him any mind; every step of trouble is a cultural landmine” (from “Get it Right Or Be Gone”), “minds is blind / souls controlled by tv screens and the goddamn radio / keep the masses mad happy / if I ever get that dumb, slap me!” (from “Leave With Your Own Mind”), and “P.I.C., I hate every inch of you!” (from the harmonica driven track of the same title). He’s bringing to light the troubling incongruousness in positive versus negative media portrayals of Hip Hop artists, the dumbing down of Hip Hop culture at the hands of video, radio, and social media, and perhaps most powerfully, how the fallback of these negative portrayals and brainwashing of the masses result in a disproportionate number of minorities in the “Prison Industrial Complex” (the P.I.C. of which he hates every inch). At various points throughout the record Chuck D speaks of these prisons being corporately funded, with said corporations thereby having a vested interest in putting and keeping people incarcerated. These are all arguments and links that have been made before, but Chuck D does a masterful job on ‘The Black In Man’ of using not only the tracks, but the intro, outro, and interludes to drive these points home, imploring the listener to see through the mass media smokescreen, seek truth, and empower themselves for not just individual, but communal and cultural gains as well.
And this is where that internal tug of war between appreciating the album’s intent and strength versus actually liking it rears its head yet again. I want to like this record more than I do, if for no other reason than I firmly believe it’s important for more people to listen to Chuck D’s thoughts and calls to action. I agree with his vision and am fully aware of the lack of parity in Hip Hop at the industry level these days. As such, I want this album to sell like hotcakes. But alas, despite my fondness for its varied, often throwback sound, and more importantly the knowledge and power within the lyrics, I just don’t believe this album will have much replay value. A big part of this is simply due to the fact that Chuck D’s flow and delivery are dated.
While in my opinion his voice is one of the most powerful and recognizable in the history of Rap music, unlike fellow 80s emcees such as Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and Run, lyrically his style hasn’t grown much over the years. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, nor unique to him among 80s emcees. Guys like Ice Cube, KRS One, and Too Short sound pretty much the same today as they did back in their heyday, and let’s be honest, who wants to hear Aerosmith try to sound like Coldplay? That authenticity in his Rap style, though not too complex either technically or from a word play standpoint, is part of what makes Chuck D who he is. Unfortunately, especially when considering the lack of top-tier Rappers providing a guest appearance at any point on the album, after a while Chuck D’s straightforward, hard-hitting lyrics grow stale. The record could have benefited from verses and/or hooks by guys like Talib Kweli, Kendrick Lamar, or Black Thought. Well-renowned underground emcees such as Akrobatik or Immortal Technique could have also fit in nicely at various points. While there are a few other voices you hear on the record that deliver some decent lyrics, Chuck D is definitely the standout emcee on ‘The Black In Man’. In the long run, despite consistently potent lyrics and a healthy production variance, too much Chuck D results in a diminishing return effect that hurts the record.
Sadly, those who can benefit most from the album, namely young Hip Hop Nation, will likely never give it the time of day. Aside from the album’s core sound not being anything close to what the youngsters are listening to these days, Chuck D’s dated flow won’t grab the young listener’s ear. I sincerely hope I’m wrong about this as again, I’d love to see this record get some meaningful commercial radio spins. Unless the industry all of a sudden goes conscious however and/or someone like Drake collaborates with Rihanna on a DJ Khaled track to create songs with similar messages, the youth will likely turn a blind eye to many of Chuck D’s calls for self-empowerment and knowledge building principles. That said however, despite my concerns that a truly important piece of Hip Hop art will tragically go largely unnoticed, as well as the diminishing return effect of Chuck D’s rap style, the album in my opinion is a net positive. Though not without its flaws, overall it’s too important and too solid of an album to call it merely average. As such, we at JP Lime Productions commend Chuck D on having the cojones to release this record, not only for its strong messages but also for being unafraid to steer clear of today’s musical trends, and proudly give it 3.5 out of 5 Limes. Hopefully you’ll give it a listen or two, because it’s healthy for music to feed the mind as well as the soul.