Revolutionaries are many things—uncompromising, impractical, irrational, alluring. But they are very seldom funny. They not only lack comic timing, but suppress silliness in others—at least 20,000 people were incarcerated in the Soviet Union just for poking fun at the government. Humorlessness afflicts not just regime topplers but armchair ideologues, right and left, who prefer hypotheses to humans. Many so-called political artists take themselves as seriously as baby gangsta rappers at a photo shoot, and end up advancing every agenda but their own as a consequence.
Maybe the Coup have been around so long because they’re the rare revolutionaries who seem to be having a good time. Proclaimed Communist Boots Riley and his partner, DJ Pam the Funkstress, have weathered several record-label fiascos and countless musical trends with funny bone intact. They’ve also survived one and a half Bush administrations. But despite plenty of White House provocation, Pick a Bigger Weapon focuses more on local dynamics than on national politics. This is a well-rounded album, with factory-floor rhymes to balance the picket-line choruses. While not as hilarious as 1998’s Steal This Album, where “Cars and Shoes” described Boots’ ramshackle rides and “Sneakin’ In” told how to outsmart movie ushers, Weapon has many sly moments. “I Love Boosters” details the provenance of Riley’s wardrobe: “My shirt is from Stacy/My pants are from Rhonda/My shoes came out the trunk of a baby blue Honda.” “Ass-Breath Killers” tells the story of a potent antidote to posterior kissitis, invented centuries ago by “the African doctor Mwangi Misoi/Known in the States as Mr. Thomas’s boy.” “Laugh/Love/Fuck” presents Riley-as-macktivist in the revolutionary struggle for sex: “If I’m not involved I feel I ain’t breathin’/If I can’t change the world then I’m leaving/Baby, that’s the same reason you should call me this evening.”
Whether or not you want to go home with him at the end of the album, Riley is the kind of revolutionary you’d enjoy having a beer with. He doesn’t just talk politics. He talks about lust and love (sweetly, on “Ijuswannalayaroundalldayinbedwithyou”), being a dad (Party Music’s “Wear Clean Draws”), and even hair care (Landlord’s “Fuck a Perm”). Basically, he talks about living. Riley’s writing is compelling because it concentrates on the corners of everyday life: rickety cars, sneaky supervisors, moldy cheese in the fridge. Riley certainly does slogans—some more successful than others—but what makes his albums consistently intriguing is the details in between. He’s invested in social change because he cares about regular people.
Whether or not listeners agree George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein are in bed together (literally as well as figuratively), they will appreciate his dense, guitar-driven grooves. Here the Coup is backed by a taut live unit that includes members of Toni! Tony! Tone!, the Gap Band, and Maze. Their low-slung rhythms imagine what might have happened if Reagan-era Prince had been less into getting some action and more into kicking up some activism, or if P-Funk had dabbled in politics as well as psychedelics. “Shoyoass” shimmers with subtle guitar and organ work. The gripping “My Favorite Mutiny” uses piano to punctuate a driving rhythm section as guest rappers Black Thought and Talib Kweli try to keep up with Mr. Riley. “Get That Monkey Off Your Back” rides a rubberized funk beat, while “Captain Sterling’s Little Problem” augments its serrated rock rhythm with a solo from Audioslave/Rage Against the Machine guitar whiz Tom Morello.
The climax is a luminous finale called “The Stand,” a clear, quiet threat to the powers that be. The chorus says it all: “This is the place where I take my stand/Take a stick and draw a line in the sand/Now meet the rubber on my shoe or meet my fuckin’ demands.” Boots Riley doesn’t need to yell to rebel, and he knows it. The biggest weapon in Boots’ arsenal is far from the newest: his brain.
The Coup plays the Bowery Ballroom June 8 and Brooklyn’s Southpaw June 9.