Rapping in Circles

Here's a circle of life for you.

Public Enemy, led by dynamic rapper Chuck D, put radical politics together with rap and a vibe rooted in funk and punk rock. The group's approach gives rise to a daringly original hybrid. A generation of rock musicians is inspired by the mix and incorporates into its music the apocalyptic sounds that marked 1988's It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. Then the innovator himself, seeing his visibility diminish, takes the guise of the followers — only to pale in comparison.

In a way, it's almost sad to hear Chuck D and fellow Public Enemy member Professor Griff on Confrontation Camp's Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear. The group is Chuck D's rock 'n' roll side project, and it serves up the generic rap-rock riffs that dominate rock radio these days — which is to say it plods, offers few ideas and seems to treasure noise more than music. Guitarist Jafar Mahmud, bassist Brian Hardgroove and drummer Wes Little come across more like an awkward suburban garage band than the assured force implied by the group's name. All told, it's a work that makes you question over and over again how the Prophet of Rage and the leader of the S1Ws (Public Enemy's onstage militia and backup dancers) could be stuck in the sound mix.

Like the rap-rockers they seek to emulate, Chuck D (operating under the pseudonym of Mistachuck) and Professor Griff spend much chorus time here screaming. They're pissed, and they do confront, as when they stuff perfunctory rebel-hero Che Guevara in your face on "Che." Chuck D also makes sure to call out radio programmers and label executives — seemingly his favorite targets these days — on "Grudge" (RealAudio excerpt) and "When the Shit Hits the Fans." Take this venom from the latter: "Half of the cheese go to the goddamn government/ CDs only cost 89 cents/ Six to 10 dollars, retail get it/ You take $11.99 on sale for getting ripped/ Mom and pop shops getting flipped/ And fans get hit with that shit." At least Mistachuck does have one part of the routine down: the bitching.

Even when the group veers into more politically substantive territory than that, it misfires. The title "Babies Makin Babies Killin Babies" (RealAudio excerpt) leaps from the album's CD jacket; it's a title that evokes the oratory of the Rev. Jesse Jackson at his best. The song, however, is a wet firecracker. It tries to do the smooth R&B thing, letting group singer Kyle Ice Jason sing in his best Johnny Gill wail, while letting the bass drive the song. But it's a painfully unsuccessful experiment and makes Chuck D's preaching about a young mother's mistakes seem forced.

Chuck D and Professor Griff even misfire when they're on usually well-trod turf — rapping about police brutality. Of course, it doesn't help that "Brake the Law" (RealAudio excerpt) is propelled by a weak attempt at one of those haunted-house guitar riffs that mark nearly every Korn song.

Chuck D is undoubtedly an innovator. His has long been a powerful voice against the music industry establishment as art and commerce clash over the control of music in the digital age. But he's a rap innovator. He should stick to rap. It's what he really, truly knows, no matter how much the new generation of rock bands has done through his influence. This leader needs to lead, not follow.