It's been thirty-five years since the second studio album from Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, hit shelves. Its legacy and influence on rap music are simply immeasurable. The album was a battle cry that revolutionized hip-hop and endures as an iconic landmark in the annals of music history.
With its multi-layered production and socio-political messaging, the album galvanized Public Enemy's status as one of the most iconic and confrontational rap groups ever. Countless acts have tried to ape the ferocity of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, but few have been able to fully rise to the occasion. Spawning several iconic singles, the album remains the gold standard for protest rap, even three and a half decades after its release.
Read More: Who Was In Public Enemy?
The Voice Of The Restless
The beating heart of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is its fierce, politically-charged lyrics. Throughout its runtime, Chuck D raps with a militant cadence as he addresses issues of racial inequality, social injustices, and systematic oppression. His words are more than lyrics on an album sleeve. They are rallying cries for marginalized communities.
Chuck D's fierce rhetoric is perfectly counterbalanced by hype man, Flavor Flav's madcap ad-libs, and surreal lyricism. The most prominent example of Flav's unique lyrical gymnastics is on full display on the track "Cold Lampin' With Flavor." Flav's rhymes tumble out of him like a torrent of staccato fits of word association on the track.
To address the elephant in the room: Some of Public Enemy's lyrical allusions have been challenged by critics as potentially containing antisemitic underpinnings. This became even more prevalent with the controversy surrounding comments by collaborator Professor Griff, who parted ways with Public Enemy. However, the album's lyrical content still holds a strong underlying message of social change.
Despite what some might see as the group's misdirected anger, the album's lyrics remain universal in their broad stance on speaking truth to power. The album is sadly still relevant, three and a half decades after its release. From drug abuse plaguing poor communities to predatory capitalism, the album takes aim at myriad issues that affect most people in the country, even now.
The Sound And The Fury
Sonically speaking, It Takes a Nation A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is built to push musical boundaries. It blends intricate beats from the production team, The Bomb Squad with dynamic chop and screwed turntable work from Terminator X. From the opening blast of "Bring The Noise" to the raucous energy of "Rebel Without A Pause," the album's sonic tapestry is consistently proactive.
It Takes A Nation... reveals more sonic nuance over the course of its 16 tracks with each repeat listen. The album’s ability to warrant frequent revisits stems from its use of dense and eclectic sampling. The use of works comes from a diverse range of sources like James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Slayer, and Malcolm X. And each sample is intricately woven together, creating a wholly original sound. It's a perfect pot of musical gumbo that never goes stale.
The musical impact of It Takes a Nation... remains a high watermark in hip-hop production and sampling. However. the issue of sampling would continue to be a controversial talking point regarding copyright violations. However, the album argues rap artists are in the right for myriad reasons.
In the song "Caught, Can We Get a Witness?" Public Enemy directly addresses this topic. Chuck raps, "...I'm giving it a new name, what you hear is mine" on the track, stating his position. The album ultimately posits the notion that previous beats and musical accompaniments are part of the zeitgeist. So, this should allow them to be reused to construct new musical compositions. It's an argument still raging out in court cases and lawsuits to this day.
A Lasting Legacy
The impact It Takes a Nation... made on music is nigh immeasurable. Countless acts from all genres of music have cited the album as an influence. Bikini Kill singer and activist, Kathleen Hanna cited the album as a "go-to" while touring. Rap acts such as Beastie Boys and Game have sampled the album. Even Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain cited It Takes a Nation... as one of his 50 favorite albums in his published personal journals.
In terms of broad appeal, the album spawned six singles and reached number 42 on Billboard's Top LPs list. It also landed number 1 on their Top Black Albums chart and reached Platinum status. It also appears on Rolling Stone's list of The 5000 Greatest Albums Of All Time, holding the number 27 position as of 2012. Music publication NME called It Takes a Nation... "the greatest hip-hop album ever" at the time of its release. That claim still holds true for many fans and critics thirty-five years later.