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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Public Enemy Keeps Up Attack

April 10, 1990|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Armed with such provocative song titles as "War at 33 1/3," "911 Is a Joke" and "Burn Hollywood Burn" on its new "Fear of a Black Planet" album, the controversial New York rap group Public Enemy is clearly still fighting the power.

But the group, whose "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" was named best record of 1988 in a Village Voice poll of the nation's pop critics, dilutes some of the album's early momentum by unnecessarily defending itself against recent criticism.

The attitude may be understandable from a group that has been under intense media scrutiny and attack since one of its members, Professor Griff, made anti-Semitic remarks last May in an interview with the Washington Times.

But the group's defense is presented most artfully in the angry, impassioned "Welcome to the Terrordome," a selection on Side 1 of "Fear" that was released as a single in January.

The group has defended itself previously, but within the context of the music. These references to the controversy--mostly in the form of sound bites from a radio call-in show--detract from the album's opening assault by suggesting that the group's personal trials are as important as the larger issues of injustice and black pride that are subsequently raised.

Once Public Enemy moves into that more important and confrontational social commentary, the album, which is due to go on sale today, rivals the force and the power of "It Takes a Nation."

There are elements in "Fear of a Black Planet" that will be controversial, including the call for reparations to blacks for years of slavery and oppression. But there is nothing that should renew the anti-Semitic alarm raised last May.

Group leader Chuck D. (real name: Carlton Ridenhour) has repeatedly denied in interviews any anti-Semitic feelings, and Griff (Richard Griffin) has apologized for the Washington Times comments. He recently left the group for a solo career.

Two of the most explosive songs on the new album--"Terrordome" and "Fight the Power"--which was featured in Spike Lee's film "Do the Right Thing," have already been available as singles, but they still sound terrific in the context of the album.

Of the new material, the most compelling tracks include "Pollywanacraka," a look at values and tension among black men and women in their search for mates, and "Burn Hollywood Burn," a slap at the movie world's treatment of blacks on screen and off.

Equally effective are "Who Stole the Soul?" the song about reparations, and the title track, which decries what Chuck D. sees as the consequences of white, European cultural domination in the United States and throughout much of the world.

In the title track, he questions the integrity of a nation where, he maintains, black blood is considered impure.

What is pure?

Who is pure?

Is it European?

I ain't sure?

One clearly positive change coming out of the months of self-examination and leadership is a healthier attitude in "Revolutionary Generation" toward women than was found in the group's debut album, "Yo! Bum Rush the Show."

The secret in maintaining commercial and artistic credibility in the fast-changing rap world is keeping the music fresh, and Public Enemy recognizes that challenge in "Fear of a Black Planet." There are traces of semi-novelty pop (the otherwise pointed "911 Is a Joke"), a moody, almost psychedelic exercise ("Pollywanacraka") and even a bit of Soul II Soul silkiness.

But the heart of Public Enemy's attack continues to be the full-throttle aggression that characterized its first two albums. In many ways, Public Enemy is the rap equivalent of the Clash. Like that British punk entry, Public Enemy moves in strange, sometimes counterproductive ways that hint at possible self-destruction, but its flame burns incredibly bright.

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