Given the depth and wealth of their combined catalogs, one might expect the members of rap-metal supergroup Prophets of Rage to scrape by without borrowing slogans from other, younger artists. And yet here they are on their self-titled debut, transforming a song title by Angel Olsen into the chorus and rallying cry of their own single, “Unfuck the World”.
It’s an awkward move, especially coming from a group ostensibly founded on the basis of its own singularity. When three-fourths of Rage Against the Machine teamed up with Chuck D and DJ Lord of Public Enemy and B-Real of Cypress Hill in the throes of last year’s electoral clusterfuck, they did so with a shared understanding that the world of 2016 truly needed them back in the fray. “We’re not a supergroup,” Tom Morello assured the concerned readers of Rolling Stone. “We’re an elite task force of revolutionary musicians determined to confront this mountain of election year bullshit, and confront it head-on with Marshall stacks blazing.”
While Marshall Amplification surely thanks Morello for the nod, the rest of his claim carries a whiff of its own bullshit. This is a group whose primary weapon is ‘90s nostalgia, and yet somehow theirs is the voice needed to fend off the Trumpian horrors of 2017 and beyond? “Everything’s changed/ Yet nothing’s changed,” Chuck D raps on “Unfuck the World” while the accompanying Michael Moore-directed video flashes images of Presidents Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump at their inaugurations. The message, intended to solidify his group’s raison d’être, comes across as more insecure than electrifying.
Lest anyone suspect the Prophets are merely out for profits, Prophets of Rage batters its listeners with a seemingly endless parade of slogans and calls to action. In this way, it’s less rock album than political rally, fanning the flames of anger and unrest for the duration of its runtime but failing to sustain much momentum beyond that.
It’s true, as Morello has said, that “dangerous times demand dangerous songs,” but they also demand songs that probe deeper into the human experience than the muddled “Legalize Me”, on which B-Real wastes his vocal spotlight on a cringe-worthy travel guide to all the places with friendly marijuana laws. This is hardly the stuff of revolution. Chuck D’s shouted “Get free! Get free!” during the chorus comes across as a neutered version of Rage Against the Machine’s “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”, arising not from genuine angst but from the song’s need for an easy sing-along.
The album’s lack of originality extends to its music as well as its sloganeering. Morello seems to have set his guitar on cruise control here, forcing Chuck D and B-Real to adjust their delivery in ways that don’t typically mesh with their talents. “Hail to the Chief” kicks down the door with the kind of vintage Rage Against the Machine riff that Zack de la Rocha once feasted upon, but neither rapper can find their footing against Morello’s fretwork. To be fair, even de la Rocha would have struggled to salvage the funky mess that is “Take Me Higher”, which pairs a recycled version of the iconic riff from David Bowie’s “Fame” with a surface-level reading of the surveillance state.
The relationship between art and revolution is self-evident, and it’s not crazy to think that rock music — even in the latter days of its relevance — might one day soundtrack the toppling of another regime. But art can only feed on the energies of revolution, and vice versa, when the former presents ideas that challenge pre-existing thought structures. Prophets of Rage, for all its righteous piss and vinegar, does not attempt to present such ideas. Instead, it works on the limited terms of a rock record designed to stir up the mosh pit and sell more tickets to next year’s inevitable world tour.
Occasionally, it works very well on those terms, as is the case with the rousing closer “Smashit”. But it’s almost laughable to imagine a world in which “Smashit” actually causes someone somewhere to toss a molotov cocktail in the general direction of a police vehicle. It’s far more likely to get a crowd of thousands warmed up for “Guerrilla Radio” — no small feat, but hardly one requiring the talents of an elite task force. If Prophets of Rage can teach us anything about the world of 2017, it’s that changing the world is hard and messy work. We can’t expect rock stars and demagogues to do the heavy lifting for us; after all, that’s what got us into this mess in the first place.
Essential Tracks: “Unfuck the World”, “Smashit”