Coming For You with Chuck D and Public Enemy

In reviewing Jay-Z‘s book Decodeda collection of lyrics with extensive commentary–(‘Word‘, The New Yorker, December 6 2010) Kelefa Sanneh writes:

Too often, hip-hop’s embrace of crime narratives has been portrayed as a flaw or a mistake, a regrettable detour from the overtly ideological rhymes of groups like Public Enemy. But in Jay-Z’s view Public Enemy is an anomaly. “You rarely become Chuck D when you’re listening to Public Enemy,” he writes. “It’s more like watching a really, really lively speech.” By contrast, his tales of hustling were generous, because they made it easy for fans to imagine that they were part of the action. “I don’t think any listeners think I’m threatening them,” he writes. “I think they’re singing along with me, threatening someone else. They’re thinking, Yeah, I’m coming for you. And they might apply it to anything, to taking their next math test or straightening out that chick talking outta pocket in the next cubicle.”

Jay-Z is on to something here, though I disagree with him about the distinction he is trying to draw, a doubt induced by what he says about his own lyrics. In part, this is because Sanneh describes Public Enemy‘s lyrics/rhymes as ‘overtly ideological,’ (pop version: they are ‘preachy’ or ‘intend to deliver a message or raise consciousness’.) That is certainly true in one dimension. But more broadly, it is an inaccurate description of the effect of Public Enemy’s lyrics, for they work and achieve their effect on listeners, not just because of the ‘political message’ but also because they induce the same effect that Jay-Z claims for his lyrics.

Consider for instance, the following amazing closing sections of ‘Rebels without a Pause‘ from the brilliant It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back . These bring the sonic power of the preceding sections to a dynamic crescendo; here, the barely contained force that has been been building up through the song threatens to break loose, through the barricades:

No matter what the name – we’re all the same
Pieces in one big chess game
Yeah – the voice of power
Is in the house – go take a shower boy
P.E. a group, a crew – not singular
We were black Wranglers
We’re rap stranglers
You can’t angle us – I know you’re listenin’
I caught you pissin’ in you’re pants
You’re scared of us dissin’ us
The crowd is missin’ us
We’re on a mission boy

Terminator X

Attitude – when I’m on fire
Juice on the loose – electric wire
Simple and plain – give me the lane
I’ll throw it down your throat like Barkley
See the car keys – you’ll never get these
They belong to the 98 posse
You want some more son – you wanna get some
Rush the door on a store – pick up the album
You know the rhythm, the rhyme plus the beat is designed
So I can enter your mind – Boys
Bring the noise – my time
Step aside for the flex – Terminator X

The effect of these lyrics, I suggest, is precisely that which Jay-Z ascribes to his own. This is not just a ‘lively speech’ – this is a dynamic invocation of action. The listeners, even if they don’t ‘become Chuck D’, want to be him, they want to be the force that he summons up, ascribes to himself, and more importantly, seems to instantiate. And as Jay-Z suggests above, the listeners don’t think Chuck D is threatening them. Instead, they are singing along, trying to be the person, or the member of that group, which is capable of saying ”Attitude – when I’m on fire/Juice on the loose – electric wire/Simple and plain – give me the lane/I’ll throw it down your throat like Barkley’ or my personal favorite: ‘I caught you pissin’ in you’re pants/You’re scared of us dissin’ us.’

But Jay-Z is right: that mood can be invoked for almost anything. Besides ‘math tests’, for lifting weights, stepping out of a plane with a pack on your back, or meeting your future in-laws for the first time.

2 comments on “Coming For You with Chuck D and Public Enemy

  1. fissionerror says:

    Jay-Z’s book sounds like it might be a good read. I stopped being surprised by how intelligent a lot of popular celebrities are when I read Marilyn Manson’s autobiography as a teen. Whether wearing lady-suit prosthesis for shock value or singing about bitches and drugs, they’ve risen to the top of very competitive markets. I’ll have to check it out.

  2. Samir Chopra says:

    Fission: yes, indeed, it sounds very interesting. And by the way, I cannot wait to read MM’s autobiography either. I’ve seen him interviewed once and was struck by how smart he was.

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