"The future holds nothing but confrontation," intones a Darth Vader voice to kick off the Enemy's fourth album. Chuck D. better hope so. Without confrontation there's no PE, the always-controversial standard-bearers of political rap.
Chuck and his colleagues are certainly doing their part: Every track here is filled with angry accusations, dares and challenges, no less sweeping for coming from a narrow point of view.
So what's new?
Maturity, for one thing. Yes, the message of black pride, as always, is delivered as bombastic rhetoric. Every personal affront is turned into a racial issue (notably Flavor Flav's "Letter to the N.Y. Post," a bilious, self-serving response to that tabloid's coverage of his arrest for allegedly hitting his girlfriend).
But it's also, more than ever, complex and provocative in a positive way. On "One Million Bottlebags" Chuck chews out malt liquor companies for targeting their high-alcohol beverage to the ghetto, but he even more forcefully chews out the homeboys for drinking it. On "Shut 'em Down," he criticizes outside businesses for exploiting the black community, while challenging blacks to start businesses of their own.
Perhaps the most telling line of attack comes in a between-track bit in which someone portraying a drawling Klansman thanks the black community for killing itself through gang violence and drugs, thereby saving him and his pals the trouble.
With a sharper focus and clearer perspective than the group has ever demonstrated, the album's actually more relevant and accessible to blacks and non-blacks alike.
The same goes for its sonic achievements. The sound collages put together by the peerless Terminator X, working with the production team here called the Imperial Grand Ministers of Funk, are hip-hop at its most primal--and most sophisticated.
The jeep-beat-heavy style is cruder and rarely as dense as such past tours de force as "Fight the Power" and "Bring the Noise" (the latter reprised here in its new version done with hard-rockers Anthrax), but it's perhaps even more compelling and complex.
The crowing achievement: "By the Time I Get to Arizona" (Chuck D.'s indictment of the state for not having a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday), with its middle section in which they use angry/anguished crowd noises to create one of the scariest sounding passages ever put on record.
There are also a few quite sly moments, including "Can't Truss It," which turns Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" inside out while painting modern industry as no different from the slave plantations.
Like Guns N' Roses' new "Use Your Illusion" albums, nothing is held back. Maturity has to fight against petulance, but it's a fight that's part of a growth process, and one that has always made for good art. "Apocalypse" may not be the breakthrough of 1987's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back," but it is another big step by what was already the leader of the rap pack.
Rating: * * * 1/2