The New Coup Debut

These days, it may be dangerous to be a revolution-minded rap act called the Coup. But in recent months, the members of the brilliant, battle-hardened crew have refused to make things any easier for themselves.

On Sept. 11, with the release of "Party Music" approaching, the album's cover -- depicting Bay Area rapper Boots Riley and DJ Pam the Funkstress detonating the World Trade Center with a guitar tuner -- suddenly took on a new meaning. The record label hastily replaced the image with a flaming cocktail. (The explosion ended up on the inside cover, blocked by the band's red-star logo.) Since then, Boots has used his media platform to question U.S. foreign policy, inciting denunciations from conservatives and liberals.

Hip-hop hasn't been this controversial since the early '90s, when acts like Public Enemy and Ice Cube garnered headlines and collected fans for their contrarian political stances. On the Coup's fourth record, the group, which proudly proclaims itself anti-corporate and "anti-Republican-and- Democratic" ("If they self-destruct, that's anticlimactic," says Boots), comes ready with answers for its critics.

At a time when millionaire rappers waste precious CD time by airing their personal beefs with each other, the Coup takes on big targets -- capitalist greed, police brutality and government corruption -- while trying to connect with the smaller-than-life. On "Nowalaters," Boots reveals a deep sympathy for a single mother, despite the fact that she once lied to him claiming that he was the baby's father. "I know that you must have been scared," he says. "Thank you for letting me go."

These are not stereotypical tales from the 'hood. On the Coup's last album, "Steal This Album," Boots's epic "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night" painted a picture of an orphaned boy in search of a father figure that was so rich it inspired author Monique Morris's novel "Too Beautiful for Words." Like a rap Randy Newman or a hip-hop Tom Waits, Boots has a gift for sketching lovable losers. They are fully human in their failings, poor people just trying to catch a break.

On the other hand, the rich and powerful bring nothing but misery with their moral certitude and selfishness, and are therefore ripe for lampooning. On "5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO," Boots cracks, "Tell him that boogers be sellin' like crack/ He gon' put the little baggies in his nose/ And suffocate like that."

The touching "Wear Clean Draws," dedicated to his baby girl, could be the best cut on an outstanding album. The funny, loving paean advises common sense as the best path through a world in which the odds are consistently stacked: "If somebody hits you, hit 'em back. Then negotiate a peace contract."

These lines are delivered with Boots's distinctively flat Cali drawl over a rough-edged, turntable-hyped, '80s-styled funk that points back to the P-Funk All Stars and Prince. In other words, while political music often proves stiff, pompous and didactic, reduced to mere messages, "Party Music" really has everything it takes to move the crowd, in the clubs or the streets. It could be one of the most important pop records of this turbulent, historic year.

Jeff Chang writes for numerous publications, including Colorlines, the Source and An earlier version of this article appeared in the Washington Post.

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