Public Enemy’s Model for Breaking “Second Album Syndrome”

Public Enemy - It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back album cover

Public Enemy - It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back album cover

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In 1990, I had the honor of meeting Chuck D after Public Enemy’s first performance in Wellington. He was tired and jet-lagged but gracious enough to shake hands and chat for a microsecond. It was a privilege to directly congratulate him on the hip-hop group’s groundbreaking second album from 1988, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

Hang on… groundbreaking? I thought debut albums were supposed to “break ground,” and don’t second albums generally end up being career-stalling crowd disappointments? Many times yes; it happens so often in fact that people tend to refer to this phenomenon as “Second Album Syndrome” (SAS).

So if SAS is definitely a thing, how do some groups manage to avoid it while others succumb to it?

The good thing is that if your first album went relatively unnoticed, you’re not in too much danger for releasing a disappointing second. But artists whose debut albums were met with wide praise and excitement have a slightly harder time. The generally accepted scenario is that you have your entire life to make your hugely successful first album, but only a short couple of years to release your follow-up. But why is this so complicated?

Well, the more attention your debut album gets, the more jam-packed your schedule gets; with touring in support of the music and endless promotional demands. The resultant extreme change in lifestyle, combined with pressure from your audience and your industry contacts means that you’re expected to deliver an “as-good-if-not-better” sophomore album, very quickly. And those ingredients tend to cook up a boiling stew of flop. 

But let’s flip back to Public Enemy for a moment, because how they managed to concoct their sophomore album is worth taking a closer look at!

Here’s some insight from the executive producer of It Takes a Nation, Rick Rubin.

“At the time Public Enemy came out, they were the least successful group on Def Jam… It wasn’t until the second album when people started accepting him [Chuck D] and got used to it. It was just so radical at first that when people heard it, they didn’t want that. Nation was important in that Public Enemy was the first group to really talk about serious political stuff… They really stepped up, but with that said, I really loved their first album too… But there’s a reference on the second album where Chuck says, ‘Last time you played the music, this time you play the lyrics.’”

There are a number of strands at work here including clarity of vision and strength of purpose. Public Enemy had something to say — from day one actually, but by the second album they had learned how to say it. Album two wasn’t just a release for the sake of releasing something, it was a statement unto itself that needed a record to be its envelope. And it was a crank-up.

Speaking of the envelope, Public Enemy also changed the way that vision was delivered too. Rubin describes Chuck D’s approach:

“He’s like, ‘I’m willing to do it under these terms: It’s called Public Enemy. It’s a group. It’s more like the Clash than a rap group, and it’s me and Flavor Flav, and [Prof] Griff and Hank [Shocklee] are involved.’ And I said, ‘Whatever you want to do is fine.’”

Once the message and style of material were clear, the team was eventually solidified. The addition of Rick Rubin as executive producer and the Bomb Squad “edge-of-panic” production team who knitted sirens, squeals, funk, and quirk with Chuck D’s polemic fused lyrics meant all were swimming in one stream. Making new work in this stage means being open to collaborators of equal, but different strengths who can realize an overarching style and vision, supported by experimentation and innovation in the studio.

For Public Enemy’s sophomore album, hundreds of samples, vocal snippets, and breakbeats were individually sourced by the group and then galvanized with an edgy raw rock feel. They upped the ante with faster tempos and more urgency than earlier work. While the original samples came from cultural reference tracks, it was their combination of aggressive metal meets rap with punk fringes laced with authoritatively outspoken political lyrics that was a fresh approach — a sound that changed hip-hop forever.

The whole album was recorded, edited, and mixed with no automation or programming — the entire Bomb Squad triggering breaks and samples from drum machines in real time to give it a live organic band feel. There was also a “no reverb” clause. One track had Chuck D’s vocal panned hard right, Flavor Flav’s hard left. All these clear, stated intentions contributed to the band feel strategy that Chuck D envisioned. Multiple small shifts and shakes towards a new musical direction were as effective as earthquakes.

They also acted as creative constraints and contributed to the momentum of the project. By saying what you will or will not do, you remove the paralysis by analysis factor. The question of making decisions becomes less vexing, way less draining. And so using creative constraints becomes a very smart, viable way to go about tackling “Second Album Syndrome.” It Takes a Nation apparently took six weeks to record at a cost of $25,000  (sampling rights aside…). Preproduction though was extensive and it had a couple of false starts before the ultimate production team and studio were finalized. But that was time well spent.

The project also had a wealth of material available — Rubin particularly keen on the joys of ‘overwriting’. Three key tracks, “Bring the Noise,” “Rebel Without a Pause,” and “Don’t Believe the Hype” — all conceived in 1987 at the group’s Hempstead, Long Island studio, Spectrum City — that would go on to serve as the foundation of It Takes a Nation…

The entire album runs at 16 songs. For those on their own path to album two, that means developing, nurturing, and maintaining a creative process irrespective of tour buses, airports, and after parties. Keeping songwriting front and center rather than “just-in-time” for recording your album project makes for a healthy catalogue and backlog of ideas for collaboration. You may consider tucking some songs up your sleeve when your first album is released, apparently a tactic both Bob Dylan and the Beatles utilized.

Sometimes though, other factors and accidents can propel or bury an album. Nothing is ever released in a vacuum and the public’s attention is fickle. You can have a great second album all set up and someone else shinier and newer than you can steal your thunder; as happened with Massive Attack’s lovely second album, Protection. Unfortunately it was released almost simultaneously with Portishead’s still-brilliant debut, Dummy.

No one can guarantee what will make a first album a smash hit (hindsight is a wonderful thing!) so coming up with number two will always be a challenge. Sometimes, an artist’s most significant work doesn’t even happen until album seven: The Beatles’ Revolver; or album nine: Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds; or even album eleven: Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours!

So hang in there and bear the lessons learned from Public Enemy’s well-played second act. I’ll leave you with a listening list of some other very successful second albums that buck the notion that it can’t be done in stride.

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