Let's Get Free, the debut album from dead prez, featured a series of hard-hitting, unabashedly confrontational tracks that took on issues such as education, police brutality, capitalism, and the commodification of hip-hop culture. Their message of black revolution and self-determination resonated across communities much like the Panthers did decades before. Lyrically on-point, with their hearts in the right places, dead prez fit comfortably within the grand tradition of political hip-hop, like a modern Public Enemy without all the flash and spectacle.
On their new release, Revolutionary But Gangsta, MCs Stic and M1 drop the heavy proselytizing in favor of a much more radio-ready feel and format, without sacrificing any of their edge. In places, RBG hints at the gentle flow of contemporaries like poetic philosopher Talib Kweli or the protest-party mix of Boots Riley and Pam the Funktress of the Coup; overall, however, they would share more with 50 cent if their priorities weren't so markedly different: he titled his multiplatinum breakthrough Get Rich or Die Tryin', while dead prez named their previous album Get Free or Die Trying.
They open with the melodic intro "Don't Forget Where U Came From," a spoken-word meditation on dead prez's train of thought and what RBG means to them, based upon the principles of the I Ching. On "D.O.W.N.," they elaborate on those principles while calling for sacrifice and unity, regardless of rag or flag. A drive-by fantasy becomes a touching memorial to political prisoners, movement icons and people felled by police brutality in "I Have a Dream, Too."
The CD's high point comes on "W-4," an understated slow jam about the working poor. Its running refrain - "I"ve been working all my life/but ain't got nothing to show/I ain't telling you nothing/you don't already know" - makes their most poetic, prophetic statement yet. Spirited and sincere, the song conveys a message as powerful and forceful as any political tract, minus the dogma. Gangsta or not, dead prez are ready for revolution. •