The Life of Riley 

With a brand-new album and a brand-new baby, the Coup's leader discourses on the dichotomy of bullets and love.

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A frequent criticism of politically aware rhymers such as Boots is that their music often isn't as engaging as that of their less socially conscious counterparts. But although the self-described perfectionist says he only recently began thinking of himself as an "artist," in truth, Boots has been more than just another rapper for some time. He has produced every Coup album to date, and the way his music feels to him is just as important as how it sounds. "When I decided, 'Okay, I gotta write an album out of this,' it kinda came down to listening to these pieces of music that make me feel a certain way when I hear 'em," he says, "without any lyrics or concepts, figuring out, how do I stay true to that feeling?"

Pick a Bigger Weapon took longer to finish than any other album by the Coup. Part of the reason was that Boots was touring regularly, teaching for a while at the Malcolm X School for Social Justice in Oakland, and getting involved with various activist issues and antiwar demonstrations. He also has spoken and lectured all over the country; in fact, he met Dawn at a panel discussion at Harvard, where she worked before the Hip Hop Archive project relocated to Stanford. Legal wrangling with 75 Ark also contributed to some of the lag time between albums, as well as the deliberate search for a new record label. But Boots spent much of the five-year layoff between Party Music and Bigger Weapon in "The Little Red Room," a cozy home studio filled with amps, speakers, cables, effects boxes, and instruments, and dominated by a huge mixing board.

"I just kinda really got obsessed with just making beat after beat," he said. "My albums are usually the first twelve beats that I like, and I just start writing to them. This album, I made one hundred beats that I like."

What he ended up with was quite funky, somewhat experimental, and often resolutely anthemic. The album feels more like Boots' baby than past efforts. The second MC slot once held by E-Roc and T-Kash has remained vacant, and apart from cameos by rappers Black Thought and Talib Kweli, Boots handles the majority of the microphone work himself. The album also represents a new level of maturity for the 35-year-old rapper and perhaps for rap itself; ten years ago, there weren't many rappers still active into their thirties.

But most notably, Pick a Bigger Weapon is the most musical album the Coup has ever made. It sounds fuller and richer than most contemporary rap albums. "It feels definitely like a progression," he says. "I think there's more stuff going on, on some songs. On Party Music, I'd definitely say I started getting more into the faster beats. I started getting into the fonk."

He also started getting into the luuuuuuuv. After being uncompromisingly revolutionary on the first three Coup albums, on Party Music Boots began to allow the mellower side of his personality to emerge. The song "Nowalaters" was an ode to a teenage former lover that was, by turns, tender, funny, and nostalgic. The poignant "Wear Clean Draws" was a father's advice to his young daughter in which he advised her to Wear clean draws/Everyday/'cuz things may fall/The wrong way/You'll be lying there/Waiting for the ambulance/And your underwear/Got holes and shit.

Pam the Funkstress believes that becoming a father was partly behind the change in Boots' outlook and lyrical content. "It's kind of mellowed him out a little bit," she says. "Before he had kids, he was telling people, 'Our kids are our future,' and now he gets to practice what he preaches. Like when he wrote that song to his daughter, 'Wear Clean Draws,' and he told her, 'Hey, you don't back down. You fight.'"

Boots agrees that fatherhood has changed him in many positive ways: "I've been a father for eight years; it made me more sentimental." Parenthood, he adds, "gives you an account of how your actions cause ripples in the world." And being raised by his father, he says, "made me view parenthood differently, and the role that a father is supposed to have."

Pam also has a unique perspective on what hasn't changed about her partner during a decade and a half together in The Coup. "He respects women," she says. "I can't see myself DJing behind Too $hort. I couldn't even compare Boots to anyone else. His lyrics are not degrading. He's been that since day one."

Consequently, Pam finds it a bit frustrating that the Coup's fan base tends to be concentrated among "antiwar" people "who want to overthrow the system" and not a broader cross-section of hip-hop fans. She doesn't classify herself as politically outspoken, although she does stand behind what Boots says, and thinks it's a good thing that political consciousness "is getting more play" in the waning years of the Bush presidency. Still, with energetic new songs like "Get That Monkey Off Your Back," she hopes the new album might attract the group a few more "people from the streets."

Pick a Bigger Weapon seems likely to at least be a critical favorite; XLR8R magazine, a pop culture tastemaker, has already called it the group's best work to date. The album is divided between militant songs such as "My Favorite Mutiny," in which Boots growls Death to the pigs is my basic statement, and pro-love material such as "Ijuswannalayaroundalldayinbedwithyou," which finds Boots purring the sheet's sweatin' and the ceilin' is pulsatin'. "Captain Sterling's Little Problem" describes how an enlisted man's pro-war ideas change after he kills a man who looked like my homie from the 'hood, while judgmental male attitudes about female beauty contribute to a fatal liposuction in the heartbreaking "Tiffany Hall" — a song based on a true story about a SF State student Boots knew. Both sides of this dichotomy coexist in "Laugh/Love/Fuck," which marries a let's-get-this-party-started chorus with exhortations about an altogether different urge. Still it's fair to wonder how exactly laughing, loving, fucking, and drinking liquor will actually make the damn revolution come quicker. It sounds suspiciously like the type of line a horny student activist might use.

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