After releasing their debut album Yo! Bumrush The Show in 1987, Public Enemy came back in 88′ with their sophomore effort It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (which is a mouthful to say or spell, so I’ll refer to it as It Takes A Nation for the remainder of this write-up). While Yo! at times showed pieces of the political/conscious stance PE is known for, It Takes A Nation is where these same stances would fully blossom and flourish. With the same cast of characters from the debut, Chuck D, Flava Flav, Terminator X, Professor Griff, The SW1’s, and the Bombsquad, would pick up where they left off at on Yo! Most critics consider It Takes A Nation not only PE’s finest moment, but one of (if not the) best hip-hop albums ever created…while some will take it a step further and argue it’s the greatest album of any genre ever made. Needless to say, it was also included on The Source’s 5 mic list (as well as #48 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 greatest albums of all time list).
How does it stack up 20 plus years later? Let’s find out.
Count Down To Armageddon – PE uses a piece of live footage taken from a concert in London, England…not much to see here folks, just a rap album intro.
Bring The Noise – I never was a huge fan of this song. Chuck sounds pretty good, and the beat was okay. You’ll also be able to pick out a handful of popular sound bites used in other artist songs. I guess it’s an okay song.
Don’t Believe The Hype – This serves as It Takes A Nation’s first certified banger. The Bombsquad, whose beats tend to become too busy for my taste, provide a simple yet funky track for Chuck D to spit over. If you’re a Roots fan you may recognize part of the second verse as source material for Game Theory’s “False Media”. I’ve always loved the inclusion of the media assassin, Harry Allen’s bit part and the end. And for the second consecutive song, Flav takes us out with his nonsensical gibberish. This song is still dope (yeah, I said dope, what?!).
Cold Lampin With Flavor – Flav’s solo. Remember what I said about Flav’s gibberish on the two previous songs? This time he gets an entire song to spit nonsense on, which the majority of the time sound completely sloppy. The track was pretty boring, which compliments Flav’s lyrics perfectly. On a side note: they have the lyrics printed in the liner notes, but Flav fails to spit the final line which he rambles on about “fandangoes” and damangoes”…thanks for sparing us the pain, Flav. The only reason I can guess this song even exist is because Chuck needed an intermission?
Terminator X To The Edge of Panic – I love Terminator’s scratches (especially the intro scratches) on this one. Chuck spits solid verses (as Flavor Flav only gets a few bars here and there, which probably better qualify as ad-lib) over this Terminator X produced track. This is still pretty enjoyable.
Mind Terrorist – This is pretty much an instrumental interlude which includes a Flavor Flav sound bite that’s looped and played over and over again. The beat is okay, and it ends just before the Flavor Flav sample becomes annoying.
Louder Than A Bomb – Carlton’s paranoia reaches new levels as he mentions at least a billion times in three verses, that his phone is tapped by the government. Other than his panic attacks, Carlton sounds pretty good, but unfortunately I can’t say the same for this empty Bombsquad produced track (this time it’s simplicity isn’t effective like it was on “Don’t Believe The Hype”)
Caught, Can We Get A Witness? – Carlton tackles the controversial issue of record sampling, which started to become a huge deal in the late eighties and early nineties. Carlton spits razor-sharp lines (with a few ad-libs from his buddy Flavor Flav) over this decent Bombsquad track. I love the last verse were he calls out “spineless” singers who confuse “sex for profit” with legitimate love songs, which I assume he uses as an excuse to jack their beats without permission. Nice.
Show Em’ Whatcha Got – If this is your first time hearing this song you’ll immediately recognize the horn sample which was later used on Wrecks N Effect’s “Rump Shaker”, and if you’re really young you’ll only remember it being used by Jay-Z’s “Show Me What You Got”. Either way, this is simply an instrumental interlude…with sound bites from yours truly, Flavor Flav.
She Watch Channel Zero?! – Carlton’s back on his soapbox on this ode to women who watch mindless tv shows. The Bombsquad provide their typical overly busy track, which works well this time, with the help of the rock tinged guitar licks. It was kind of funny to hear Flavor continuously tell his girl to turn off the “soaps” so he can watch the basketball game or the SuperBall (because sports are really food for thought, right?). Little did we know 20 years later Flav would be making the same garbage Channel Zero tv shows he warns us about. Hypocrite.
Night Of The Living Baseheads – Carlton’s back with another Public Enemy Service announcement: this time and ode to the basehead, or as the kids call them these days, crackheads. I still remember the extended video for this song, which is easily accessible on the World Wide Web and pretty entertaining. Chuck’s lyrics are sharp over this chaotic and sick Bombsquad track. I wonder if the emcee turned crackhead, Chuck mentions during the last verse is somebody we may know (hmm…). This actually sounds better today than it did 20 years ago, fine wine, baby.
Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos – Carlton plays the role of a military draftee who refuses to go to war for a racist country (i.e. The United States), and in return gets thrown in the state pen. The Bombsquad provide one of their best beats (the Isaac Hayes sample has been used on several other songs since, but never again would it be used this well and sound this good) for Carlton’s booming vocal to paint a very vivid storyline over, making this a bona fide masterpiece.
Security Of The First World – Instrumental Interlude…
Rebel Without A Pause – The sample on this song sounds a lot like the one used on “Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic”, with a different tempo. It still works well enough for Carlton to spit rare braggadocio rhymes (it was kind of strange to hear him boast about his love of wrangler jeans, WTF? Can’t you just see Chuck and Brett playing catch in the next Wrangler commercial, rocking their favorite jeans?) with a few jewels thrown in for good measure. This was nice.
Prophets Of Rage – Chucky sounds great, but this song simply falters do to the under mixed track. I’m listening to this with my ear buds on my laptop: you can barely hear what the sample is doing, and if each element was moved to its own track and recorded, the effect would have been killer, but unfortunately it’s not. It is was it is (try listening to this with quality headphones and see if you catch what I’m talking about).
Party For Your Right To Fight – A play off of the title of the Beastie’s party anthem, “Fight For Your Right”, (they even sample a sound bite from said song for a portion of the hook), with a theme similar to PE’s arguably biggest hit “Fight The Power”. While this was a decent way to end a conscious/politically charged album, I didn’t really care for it. And with that we’re done.
It Takes a Nation effectively builds on the foundation that was laid by Yo! Bumrush The Show! Chuck D completely comes into his own, spitting verses full of purpose, while managing not to come across too preachy, and throwing in an occasional boast for good measure. While Chuck proves to be a more than capable emcee, my frustration lies within the production, and while they do have some certified bangers (“Don’t Believe The Hype”, “Channel Zero”, “Living Baseheads”, and “Black Steel”), the overall production on It Takes A Nation tends to be a bit uneven.
Did The Source Get It Right? While I might get accused of blasphemy and stoned for this next statement: No, they didn’t. The singles off of It Takes A Nation (which were all pretty strong) are what carry this album and make many consider it one of the greatest albums of all time. The importance of PE’s image and message is immeasurable, as they came at the perfect time and reshaped hip-hop. Unfortunately due to the lackluster production and Flavor Flav’s antics (i.e. “Cold Lampin With Flavor”), pound for pound (or song for song) It Takes A Nation doesn’t quite stack up. Sorry, go ahead and speak your peace in the comments.