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Review: Prodigy – Fat of the Land

This album originally came out June 30, 1997. In honor of the album turning 20 this year, and our feature on the Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1997 that includes Prodigy’s “Firestarter” and “Breathe,” we’ve republished it here.

Prodigy, to put it mildly, are malleable. Dancer/bellower Keith Flint may look like a punk now, but he’s a hippie with a feather in his cap on the comic inside 1992’s Experience booklet. The group’s second album, 1994’s Music for the Jilted Generation, begins with a vow to take things “underground”–sure, guys, you don’t have a commercial bone in your body. That’s why on The Fat of the Land, trying to top “Firestarter,” they’ve removed the instrumentals, female vocalists, and house-derived piano parts that once diversified their albums, replacing them with a steady diet of tough-guy swagger over boomshakalakas.

Actually, I think Prodigy were right to take as their exclusive focus a style that began with Jilted‘s “Poison,” in which the toast, “I got the poison / I got the remedy,” sent the groove climaxing somewhere between Ministry’s hard-rock electro and dance hits like Snap!’s “The Power.” All that testosterone couldn’t be more appropriate: If the Chemical Brothers impress with the clever twists they insert into the sound and shape of their rhythm tracks, DJ/producer Liam Howlett’s beats are clubbish in the caveman sense–you can even hear a whoosh before the blow arrives. And with Flint and Maxim trading off boasts (plus Kool Keither on “Diesel Power”), they’ve got a top to go with the bludgeoning bottom.

Howlett’s learned one thing from the Chem. Bros–how to structure an album in the electronica era: first half party groove, second half more experimental. The latter is pretty skippable, save for “Firestarter” and the L7 cover, “Fuel My Fire” (artiness is not Prodgy’s strength), descending into a true nadir on the nine-minute Kula Shaker collaboration, “Narayan.” Still, while their earlier long players meander, The Fat of the Land‘s opening five tracks jump consistently, the bass lines either superhooky or subdub deep that it doesn’t matter. The only drawbacks are verbal: “Funky Shit” is too empty a slogan even for this band, and “Smack My Bitch Up” is hardly party language at all.

Ah, testosterone, more powerful than any technology. Are Prodigy’s biracial ruffianisms–maybe the best fusion of pseudo-rap and pseudo-punk since Rage Against the Machine–meant to please an imagined U.S. mass that finds synths wimpy but will rock along anyway if given some misogyny to suck on? Ironically, beyond clubgoers, only critics (who supposedly care too much about lyrics) may be willing to tolerate the group’s complete cartoonishness. Howlett will just have to keep fucking with the formula– he’s done it before.