2012 IN COMMIE RAP
Sorry to Bother You
Steal This Album changed my life back in 2000. Xhuxk Eddy had picked it on his year-end album list, so I ordered it in to Borders and listened on headphones at one of the listening stations after my shift ended (sometimes I'm surprised at what they let us do), and was promptly blown away. It didn't make me a communist, but it did show me that resistance movements can be human, funny, and immediate. Political engagement and pop music are both communicative arts, and Boots Riley had them down. He drew me in by being relatable, yes, but also by being clever, by commenting on the songs within the songs just like any listener would do -- so it turns out being "meta" is just another form of empathy. When my writing is at its best, whether it's a record review or a Christmas program, there's something in there of what I learned from Riley. (And new journalism, and Philip Roth, but you get the picture.) The Coup has gotten worse as its profile's grown (blahblahblah rock critic)
Here's a review I first wrote for PopMatters, then altered for Burnside -- removed some cussing and added a punchier Niebuhr quote and a footnote.
“The Marxian imagines that he has a philosophy or even a science of history. What he has is really an apocalyptic vision.”
—Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man & Immoral Society
Even if they broached the taboo topics of politics and religion, I bet Boots Riley, The Coup’s chief rapper and organizer, would get along famously with Garth Brooks. Brooks has friends in low places, and Riley’s got love for the underdog. Brooks once showed up in boots (hey!) to ruin his ex’s black tie affair, promising, “Honey, we may be through / But you’ll never hear me complain.” On the new “My Murder, My Love,” Riley hopes his ex’s new guy fits the tux, adding, “Let me clarify things with the way I strut / So I can shout with my mouth shut.” He’s apologetically titled The Coup’s sixth album Sorry to Bother You, and if you buy that, maybe you’ll believe Garth Brooks doesn’t mean to cause a big scene. They’re both big-hearted populists, in other words—everymen who humanize their lofty ideals with laughter, love, sex, and liquor, causing trouble and mending fences when necessary, and piling on the musical hooks. Squint and you can imagine Riley nodding along to Brooks’ feel-good equality hit “We Shall Be Free.”
If Riley had actually written “We Shall Be Free,” though, his version would have differed slightly. Both men agree on the problems—Brooks yearns for the day “when the last child cries for a crust of bread,” while Riley hears “stomachs so loud it’ll cancel the speech” in the Coup’s punchy single “The Magic Clap.” It’s the problem solving that’s tricky. Since Riley’s a communist, he favors protests and collective action. (He’s been heavily involved in the Occupy Oakland movement.) Not only that, he often raps about an upcoming capital-R Revolution, in which the people will take over the means of production and share equitably in the wealth they create. This Revolution will likely include weapons and killing rich people. The video for one of Sorry’s best songs, “The Guillotine,” ends with an Uncle Pennybags type losing his head.
In interviews, Riley tends to deflect the implications of violent protest by pushing it off to the future somewhere, a catastrophic event horizon beyond which everything will change. Which, when you think about it, corresponds to Garth Brooks’s vague gospel-derived eschatology: “We shall be free.” How? “Have a little faith.” When? “Hold out.” It’s Revolution vs. Revelation.* At least The Coup is courageous enough to discuss Revolution’s gory details. But the question should be, how do eschaton-obsessed musicians use all this stuff aesthetically? And the answer is, as symbols.
Which doesn’t mean their apocalypses are pretend. In art or in life, the thing about symbols is that they’re absolutely true, whether or not they reflect literal reality. “The symbol participates in that to which it points,” says theologian Paul Tillich. Well before they materialize, leftist revolutions and religious apocalypses change how their believers talk, how they act, how they strut. “It’s gonna be ending with us winning / You already know,” sings Coup vocalist Silk-E in “This Year,” an encouraging anthem. (Or, as Christian rockers Thousand Foot Krutch put it, “The End Is Where We Begin.”) The fact that people’s revolutions have actually happened doesn’t change their symbolic value at all, though it might determine some of Riley’s aesthetic details. Guillotines, for instance. The lady with the gun in his logo. The name “The Coup.” Riley wants his music to participate, to help bring about Revolution. “My painting isn’t finished till it kills you / And it makes you feel more powerful than pills do,” he says in the agit-punk “You Are Not a Riot,” sounding like Andrew W.K. teaching an art appreciation course.
Until that glorious day arrives, Riley uses Revolution as a hard edge against which he caroms his song ideas. The hard rocking “Long Island Iced Tea, Neat”—have I mentioned Sorry is mostly a rock album with rapping?—isn’t just any drinking song featuring nude bar dancing and Ice Cube shoutouts; it’s a post-riot celebration, “a toast to the folks who let action speak.” The impressionistic “Violet” recounts a magical night tearing through the city with a prostitute; over meditative strings and guitars out of Bush’s “Glycerine,” Riley and Violet “made a promise we would never settle,” kind of like in Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender” if the goal was taking down pimps and cops.
That’s another similarity to Christian music: Riley loves taking tropes from pop and rap and twisting them to his ideological ends. He closes this album with “WAVIP,” a straight-up bass/drums banger where Riley, Killer Mike, and Das Racist storm the club—and the one percent—with cries of “We’re all VIP,” everyone in the hood. Compare to Sinéad O’Connor’s recent album closer “V.I.P.” where she storms the club with Biblical judgment and poor people. “A face that never was nor will be kissed / Will show you what a real V.I.P. is,” she seethes. Joke that needs a punchline: Garth Brooks, Sinéad O’Connor, and Boots Riley walk into a club . . .
Speaking of jokes: since Steal This Album in 1998, each Coup release has traded away more laugh lines for slogans, narrative complexity for protest songs, wacky non-sequiturs for points. This may mean they’re getting worse, or it might just mean Riley’s learning new tricks. In a recent eMusic interview, Riley worried that his earlier work seemed “disconnected” and said of his new lyrical focus, “There are still different things that are funny and humorous, but it’s not just a punch line for the sake of having one.” For me, the punchlines on Steal This Album were the best way of connecting to Riley’s philosophy. When he threw in dick jokes, or kept coming up with outrageous ways to insult his crappy car, or mocked his own hook in “The Repo Man Sings for You,” he flung open the door of communist ideology to anyone with a sense of humor. (It helped that I was living in minimum wage poverty with a crap car right around the time of Nader for President and the WTO protests.) “Breathing Apparatus” remains one of the great rap songs because it blends political analysis, a vivid sense of location, and the sheer pleasure of hearing men in love with their own exuberantly funny words.
A Sorry song like “Land of 7 Billion Dances” is still musically exciting, with its rat-a-tat drums and guitar from co-producer Damion Gallegos. (The video features some great Bay Area dancers.) But lyrically, aesthetically, it closes the door. Riley alludes to hosting a meeting—“If this your first time here, raise your hand”—and then rattles off a bunch of slogans. You long for the details of that meeting: the refreshments, the secret meeting place, the scared looks of the minimum wage kids attending, anything. Riley writes better slogans than most—he’s certainly more coherent than the union reps I met with years ago—but slogans tend to shut songs and imaginations down. As does the heavy-handed allegory of the album’s biggest clunker, “We’ve Got a Lot to Teach You, Cassius Green.”
Still, Riley’s got the hooks and musical chops to make this a pretty good record. The madcap kazoos on “Your Parents’ Cocaine,” syncopated swagger of “Guillotine,” and eerily grooving “The Gods of Science” are all impossible to forget and easy to love. Riley’s lyrics go to unexpected places—“Even mountains are in flux,” he says at one point, sounding like Zen master Suzuki. The band’s garage-funk rhythms kick; horns and strings are well deployed. True to form, Riley’s best line is scatological: “I’m too damn drunk to continue this debate / Cuz I can’t articulate and I need to urinate.” No matter how well you immanentize the eschaton, real life intrudes.
*I should probably point out that communist revolution and apocalyptic revelation have obvious differences. One’s caused by people and the other by God, for instance, and each scenario puts very different entities in charge. But if we see divine agency in collective actions like salt marches, bus boycotts, and teacher strikes — and really, we should — then revolution and revelation are closer than we might think. You find this in the various strains of liberation theology, where Christians work to further God’s causes of feeding the hungry and casting the mighty down from their thrones. That such theology requires solemn discernment makes it no less God’s work.
(Way better than Brother Ali's Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color.)