At first blush, The Coup’s new record seems… well, strange. The Bay Area rap group spearheaded by Marxist firebrand and Afro Hall of Famer Boots Riley has been around as long as Snoop Dogg and Wu-Tang, and yet they’ve managed to stay (relatively) under the radar for their entire career. Part of this is, admittedly, a steadfast refusal to make hits; even their catchiest songs (and they have many) are Riley’s intensely literate, barbed attacks at the status quo. The band’s latest, Sorry to Bother You, continues their gradual progression away from the deep G-funk of their earliest records, but to make a calculated bid for the mainstream would be a far too predictable move. Instead, The Coup retreat deep into the annals of politically-charged punk and funk, and resurface with a party for the end of the world. Which is applicable to most Coup albums, and most certainly to everything they’ve released this millennium; the difference is that, this time around, Riley’s sphere of influence defies easy categorization.
Sorry to Bother You doesn’t sound like any other hip-hop record. There are elements here and there, sure: there’s Outkast’s acid-fried funk right there on “Land of 7 Billion Dances”, P.O.S. and The Knux’s razor-sharp integration of buzzsaw punk guitars on half the tracklist, and though there’s nothing here that sounds overtly Kanye, the ghost of Mr. West’s reckless, genre-defying creativity is all over this thing. Perhaps more interesting, though, are the non-hip-hop influences that The Coup have woven into this thing: the restless, paranoid funk-rock of Funkadelic, strands of early ’80s punk and new wave, rock, r&b, symphonic Beatles pop. It’s a reckless, pinwheeling record, one that never stays in one place for too long, but that sounds remarkably cohesive.
Boots’ fight-the-power manifesto remains firmly in place here, although it’s trickled down (ha!) a little bit: corporate-controlled politicians and the struggle of the working class are still hot-button issues for Boots, but there’s some ire directed at the ground level, too. He dismantles faux-revolutionaries in the scathing “You Are Not a Riot” and eviscerates snooty trust-fund babies in “Your Parents’ Cocaine”; the album is spotted with varied and disparate guests (Jolie Holland, Vernon Reid, longtime collaborator Silk-E), but Boots handles all rapping duties until closing track “WAVIP”, where he trades off with current notables Das Racist and Killer Mike. It’s a sly metaphor couched in a funky party track; the chorus chant of “We’re all V.I.P.” craftily outlines Boots’ self-proclaimed Communist leanings by suggesting that the 99% should be invited to the party, too. (This is nothing new to Riley — he’s identified with the proletariat for over 20 years now, although his message might be a little more en vogue in the wake of Occupy Wall Street.)
And the message remains as timely and potent as ever, but what really makes Sorry to Bother You special is the music. It takes some getting used to, particularly for longtime fans — Riley’s longtime DJ, Pam the Funkstress, is barely heard — but it practically explodes with ideas. The bratty punk chants on “Your Parents’ Cocaine”; the nervy Steve Nieve-esque keyboard trills on “You Are Not a Riot”; the ghostly acapella breakdown at the end of “My Murder, My Love” (one of the record’s many standouts)… it’s an enriching, unpredictable experience, this record. So much so that when Boots raps solemnly, nostalgically, over a small, lonesome string section on “Violet” — perhaps the most heart-stoppingly gorgeous song I’ve heard all year — it’s almost the most unexpected development on an album with no shortage of surprises up its sleeve. Boots has been vulnerable and tender before — think back to “Underdogs” from Steal This Album, or Pick A Bigger Weapon’s “Tanya Hall”, or even Party Music’s pastoral “Heven Tonite” — but that he’s willing to do so on such a propulsive album with so much twitchy rock energy is an unexpected pleasure.
I haven’t touched upon every delight Sorry to Bother You unfurls. There’s plenty to discover here. It’s long past time to stop sleeping on The Coup; Sorry to Bother You isn’t their masterpiece, it’s one of their many masterpieces. It also may be the most vital, kinetic, exciting album released in 2012.