Struggling to appear relevant next to Ice Cube and the Geto Boys, Run-D.M.C. has shot itself in the foot. This groundbreaking rap group’s fifth album is a bitter disappointment because it’s so obvious — or, as rappers Run and D.M.C. would now put it, so motherfuckin’ obvious. Gratuitous obscenities abound on the record, and they sure don’t make Run-D.M.C.’s new tales of street violence and urban injustice any more convincing. Brandishing guns and bantering with racist cops, Run and D.M.C. may well be telling it like it is in 1990. But on most of Back From Hell they sound like actors playing out roles rather than artists dramatizing their own lives.
DJ Jam Master Jay is at the top of his form, however. The music on Back From Hell is astounding: Jay constructs vivid minisoundtracks from the detritus of pop culture, laying samples on top of samples without overdoing it. He’s obviously learned a lot from his production work with reggae rapper Shinehead and the Afros, a comic nostalgia act that appears on several tracks here. Unfortunately, that deep musical backing just throws more emphasis on the words, which can’t carry the weight.
“What’s It All About” combines a quivery bass line with the vocal hook from “Alfie,” of all things, and makes you move. But Run just can’t get started, so he waxes defensive: “The Ku Klux Klan is fucked up…. Anybody who doesn’t like what me and my crew is doing, fuck you…. Punk motherfuckers … I’ll break your fucking neck.”
That’s saddening, since Run doesn’t need to resort to empty threats and gestures; he’s capable of outrhyming the competition. The rapport and humor of Run-D.M.C.’s earlier work have been shelved in favor of Run’s tough new stance; D.M.C.’s earthy interjections come infrequently now and are sorely missed. That’s not to say Run-D.M.C. should return to the musical and verbal formulas that made the group famous, but even nominally funny numbers like “Not Just Another Groove” start to feel like a dead end. “Check out the lyrics,” Run-D.M.C. insists on that cut, “you pissed me off, now I’m taking a leak.” Aw, heck, guys, why’d you have to go out like that?