Release Date: October 30, 2012
Boots Riley is nobody’s armchair Marxist, not with lifelong commitments to collectivism shoring up his I’m-a-Communist boasts. But an active role transferring Occupy Wall Street to his hometown of Oakland seems to have galvanized even this old pro. So whether it’s Occupy’s commitment to leaderless action or a creative approach that’s suspicious of being too literal, it’s a victory for art over agitprop that Riley chose to edit out most tangible references to the Occupy movement on this long-running outfit’s first album since 2006 — the only explicit mention of the one percent comes from Killer Mike on album closer “WAVIP.”
If you wanted to parse things closely (never a bad idea with this crew), you might note in “Long Island Iced Tea, Neat” a narrator drunk on the possibilities of power through numbers, or the “common enemy” alluded to on sovereignty-of-the-people anthem “The Guillotine.” But that’s as specific as Riley gets. Elsewhere, he covers familiar ground: anger at the establishment, sure, but also an insistence that glossing over the individuality of the downtrodden aids oppression, and how holding tight to either/or arguments wards off a tragic inconsequence Riley couldn’t be less interested in.
Of course, one individual’s “either/or” is another’s stridency, but Riley always has distinguished himself from other agitators by streamlining his message with weapons of subtlety. Humor, for example, meaning “economics is the symphony of hunger and theft” pivots to “tell Homeland Security we are the bomb.” Plus sex, a finite resource ever-present in Riley’s sensual drawl. But music remains the Coup’s ultimate sweetener, and here the jams hit hard like the words — from the big beat of opener “The Magic Clap” to the grimy guitar on “Land of 7 Billion Dances,” departures from the smooth, soothing funk that was once this outfit’s specialty.
DJ Pam the Funkstress and a road-tested band have expanded their definition of groove to encompass a punk/funk amalgam that’s wholly original, effortless, and very fun, like the kazoo-laden Clash rip “Your Parent’s Cocaine,” a standout track of leisure-class progeny frolicking amid vomit and blow while Dad bankrolls the Afghan War. On those rare occasions when lyrical inspiration flags, as it does during “We’ve Got a Lot to Teach You, Cassius Green” (one devils-in-the-boardroom tale too many), the backdrop even picks up the slack courtesy of slinky sitar and accordion breakdown, while the stop-start hardcore dynamics of “You Are Not a Riot” quell any logical objections to an argument pitting Mexican social realist David Siqueiros against supposedly detached aesthete Andy Warhol.
Heady stuff. Yet Riley ultimately wants to level with an audience explicitly identified as “kids.” With a line worthy of Langston Hughes — “History has taught me some strange arithmetic” — “Strange Arithmetic” challenges teachers to create citizens, not victims, excoriating geography studies for ignoring class boundaries and hectoring statistics as a “tool of the complicit,” all while riding a Captain Sensible synth/guitar line. Most searing is “Gods of Science,” from which this key lyric springs: “Whole cities are haunted / Cuz some money bag nodded / And dropped the thought product / Of a Harvard grad upon it.”
Unpack what those four lines suggest about urban planning, the bad citizenry of moneyed elites, expertise as a force for evil, and the politics of the powerless; then apply those conclusions to Boots and the Coup’s embrace of the guillotine — that unenlightened tool of the Enlightenment. They don’t care if artistic calls to violence negate future prisoners-of-conscience claims. Thing is, they’re plenty committed to questions of conscience, as witness the string-laden set piece “Violet,” in which a refrain of “C’mon, holla at yo’ dawg” answers Boots’ calm exposition of street vice. Minus his observations — his sympathy, his grasp of the chasm between dreams and regrets, his compassion — the song’s subjects might be no more than a dot on the crime ticker. Yet another reason our man distrusts statistics.