No group has done more to open minds and expand the parameters of hip-hop than Public Enemy. But as P.E's original fanbase graduated from dorm rooms to mortgages, it largely abandoned the group, holding onto cherished memories of "Fight The Power" and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back while steadfastly avoiding the group's increasingly low-profile new releases. Public Enemy is the kind of group people talk about in the past tense even though Chuck D and Flavor Flav are not only still together but still releasing new albums, DVDs, and even the occasional embarrassing reality show.
But if hip-hop seems ready to relegate Public Enemy to the dustbin of history, Chuck D is intent on making arguably rap's most important group an integral part of rap's future as well as its past. In addition to being the group's first album of entirely new material since 1999's underrated There's A Poison Going On, New Whirl Odor marks one of the opening volleys in an reported onslaught of 18 Public Enemy releases to hit shelves over the new few years in multiple media. Chuck D can be faulted for many things, but a lack of ambition isn't one of them.
The self-released Odor seems the beneficiary of total creative freedom when what the Public Enemy frontman really needs is someone to reign him in. Odor could benefit tremendously from a strong-willed Russell Simmons-type advising D not to end the album with an interminable, nearly 12-minute jam ("Superman's Black In The Building") that takes up nearly a quarter of the album. And it sure could use someone admonishing D not to resurrect the forgettable rap-rock fusion of Confrontation Camp on the Professor Griff-produced "What A Fool Believes." For that matter, it could benefit from a whole lot less of Griff, especially in the home stretch. D's voice remains a furious, irrepressible siren of volcanic anger, and there are songs here like the title track that resurrect the righteous boom-bap of vintage P.E. But terrible sequencing buries the highlights and emphasizes the egregious missteps.
Public Enemy has always thrived on engendering passionate responses from fans and detractors alike. So it's got to hurt to have their new album greeted by such a raging tsunami of public indifference. The sad part is that there isn't simply enough superior material here to refute the notion that Public Enemy's days of being the heir to The Clash's "the only band that matters" title are at least a decade behind it.