DEAD PREZ – “I’m An African”; “Behind Enemy Lines”; “Be Healthy” (From the Let’s Get Free CD)
Tom was right to identify the harsh, stripped-down, drone-based “Hip Hop” as one of the few “undie” tracks where the production equals the integrity and high standards of the artist (though I’d still say Super Human Powers have an astonishing sound). Brilliant as it is, “Hip Hop” isn’t quite the highlight here – that’s the desperate rage of “I’m A African”. The excitement it brings on is that of a people trying against everything to rediscover themselves and articulate their roots to form a new identity, and it couldn’t be more poignantly meant. The first six tracks here – concluding with the mournful “Police State” and wickedly ELO-quoting, flute-driven “Behind Enemy Lines” – are exhilarating and as good as you’ll hear this year. The problem is that the rest of this album epitomises all the worst aspects of “undie” production values – from “Assassination” onwards syrupy female backing vocals become more and more present, “Mind Sex” has an irritatingly twee 70s-ish funk backing, and “Be Healthy” is a real nadir, with its rather offensively and crassly “rootsy” acoustic guitar sound. The sound gradually becomes more and more predictable – “The Message” is quoted (come on, we’ve heard that one too often) on “Psychology”, “Happiness” and “Animal in Man” positively boast how “real” they are with their ostentatiously “classic” flutes and orchestral backing … you can’t fault anything they’re saying, but you wish for a touch of Kool Keith’s irreverence and sense of fantasy … and as for the tedious 70s funk “jam” “You’ll Find A Way”, don’t get me started (although the second of the two unnamed bonus tracks is a partial return to the incredible early form). It seems that when they move from the grimly realistic “Today” side to the well-intentioned idealistic “Tomorrow” side, they regard it as an excuse to sugar-coat and sentimentalise their sound. Depressing.

If the only criteria for appreciating and evaluating pop music was how worthy it all was and how ideologically relevant it was to the problems faced by those creating the music concerned, then this would be the greatest hip-hop album for 10 years. But if I used those criteria and applied them to my political views in a UK context, Billy Bragg would be the best British songwriter of the last 20 years. There are many other elements involved – like modernity, apparent relevance, appreciation of the other elements that go together to create great pop music … and from Track 7 onwards, most of this album falls short. The verdict has to be: worthy and important but