Review Summary: "Nation of Millions" is vital, essential, revolutionary. Why bother, you already own this album. Right?
In what has to be one of the most fitting coincidences of my entire life, Public Enemy was the first rap group to stir up trouble in my household. When I was a young’n, an appearance on the soundtrack to one my first true video games (Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, PC version to boot!) prompted my parents to demand I play the game with the music turned off despite my protests, they were too late; a seed had been planted. Flash forward to my freshman year of high school and I was religiously snapping up albums out of the single most important document of my musical development, Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, the tattered soft cover book still sits on the shelf behind me. I had been collecting albums for a year before I realized my cracka’ ass did not own a single rap album. I remedied this by flipping to the highest ranked album on the list, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” at number 48. It looked dangerous. I bought a used copy with a cracked case off eBay and took it with me on a vacation to Washington DC. Its terrifyingly loud clatter was like nothing I’d ever heard, it reprogrammed everything I knew about music as I wandered through historical monuments, civil war graveyards, and Arlington National Cemetery.
Hundreds of rap albums later and “Nation of Millions” stands alone. Most rap albums released during the genres “Golden Age” has become rap’s equivalent of easy listening, elevator music for the offices at Complex Magazine, music rendered safe by nostalgias, a trap PE was already well aware of. Public Enemy’s debut, “Yo! Bum Rush the Show” left head bellower Chuck D frustrated. Released only a year earlier, it sounded like a time capsule, rendered wholly out of date by a swiftly mutating genre. He vowed to create something timeless and my god, did he succeed. Public Enemy has made an album that I suspect will never sound peaceful. Years of repression refracted through the broken shards of obscure jazz records, impassioned speeches by black leaders, and bullets exploding out of shell casings passed off as snare drums. Make no mistake; this album can still incite riots. Despite the density of the material on display, the production is impeccable. The layers are rendered with perfect clarity; you can crank this album to max volume without feeling like you’re doing significant damage to your hearing. Listen close to hear the sampled souls of the dammed cry out behind Chuck D on “Louder than a Bomb”. Witness “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” fold in on itself as reversed samples sweep in from all edges of the production. The Bomb Squad pull you back to 1988 and force you to live in their world.
“Nation of Millions” is as consistent as any rap album but the highlights are dizzying. Chuck D has an uncanny knack for legendary first lines and kicks off with possibly the greatest opening line in rap history, “BASS!/How low can you go?/Death row./What a brother know?” Chuck is never anything less than a commanding presence on the mic, snagging your ear right out of the gate and holding your attention with force. “Louder Than a Bomb” whispers its refrain for maximum impact, “She Watch Channel Zero” shreds better than 99 percent of the rock rap that followed it and “Prophets of Rage” careens forth with runaway momentum until the chorus calms it down again.
While Chuck D is on some seriously hot fire here, more nimble in his flows than I remember, striking down sampling laws and the prison system with his devastating baritone, without Flava Flav this would be an hour of diamond hard beats and relentless politics. It wouldn’t work. Flav adds a necessary level of humor to the proceedings adding a dose of irony to “She Watch Channel Zero” and contributing the amazing hook to “Don’t Believe the Hype” (I quote: “huuuu-eh-eh-eh-ah-eh-ah”). He’s also responsible for one of my favorite songs on the album, the incredible “Cold Lampin With Flavor”. It’s a 4-minute explosion of dizzying non sequitors and rollicking piano. It sounds amazingly current. It also cracks me up, “We got magnum brown Shoothki Palloski/Supercallifragiexpilaidooski/You can put that in your don’t know what you said book”. “Yah eatin' death 'cause ya like gettin' dirt/From the graveyard, you put gravy on it/Then you pick your teeth with tombstone chips/Casket cover clips, dead women hips.” It’s amazing and I’ve never seen anyone talk about it.
Despite all this loudness this album makes for an easy front to back listen. Its use of ambient interludes gives the listener time to collect themselves between skirmishes. Samples from a fiery London show further links the album while actualizing the nation of millions, kicking the album off with one of the first necessary rap intros. As an air raid siren blares and an eager crowd swells with anticipation Professer Griff declares “London England! Consider yourselves. Warned!”
Listen close to the glissando running up and down the spine of “Rebel Without a Pause”. In it, you will find everything about “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”. Brash, confrontational, and urgent, it demands your attention. Upon its completion, Chuck claimed, “I could die tomorrow. Because that record right there? Nothing could go ***ing near it.” He was right. “Chuck you gotta slow down man! I think you losing them!” Flav warms during the brief reprieves that make up the chorus. He was right too, Chuck, Flav, and the whole Bomb squad had left their peers in the dust, hands on their knees wondering what the hell just blew by them. Hank Shocklee said “We took whatever was annoying, threw it into a pot, and that’s how we came out with this group”. Annoying indeed, outspoken politics, Louis Farakhan endorsements, and those shrill trumpets hitting the most red faced notes possible. Public Enemy is furious and as “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” ages it refuses to calm down. And it all started with that glissando. I catch myself whistling it sometimes.