Thanks to Limp Bizkit and their legion of imitators, rap metal now gets dismissed as an evolutionary mistake, the bastard realm of repetitive two-bar guitar riffs and sledgehammering monochrome beats. But the pioneering Rage Against the Machine were always deeper than that, and this Rick Rubin-produced covers collection — recorded on a whim while the quartet was finishing its now-delayed live album — shows why: Not only do Rage understand the sweep of rock and rap history, but they had bold and unusual ways of tearing that history up.
From the opening wah-wah guitar that kicks Eric B. and Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend” wide open, Rage make clear that this won’t be a canned karaoke cakewalk: The groove enters at a bloodthirsty pitch, and vocalist Zach de la Rocha drops verses with the most agility and syncopated precision he’s ever displayed. Throughout the album, the rhythm section matches de la Rocha’s intensity. Rage glance at the original blueprints left by the Stooges, Minor Threat and others, but are most effective doing total rewrites — on Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man,” the minimalist beat is twisted up tight and spanked until it glows. The very act of covering such diverse works as Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” Afrika Bambaataa’s “Renegades of Funk” and Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” requires a certain audacity, but Rage take things further — executing each with the roaring, fearless spirit that’s been missing in action since these songs were new.