Twenty years ago, in 1997, The Prodigy released their third album “The Fat of the Land.” The album was showered with praise from the outset, and the many who were quick to label it as the defining album of the big beat genre have yet to encounter many who disagree with them. Even as the popularity of big beat as an active scene diminished towards the turn of the millennium, “The Fat of the Land” saw barely any waning in popularity and acclaim. As of 2012, the album has sold over ten million copies worldwide.
When The Prodigy started making music (or rather, when they quickly began to amass popularity beyond their origins as a warehouse rave act), nothing they were doing was necessarily “new” in any revolutionary sense, but the way they went about the doubly-intense breakbeat productions of big beat was exciting all the same.
There was a certain energy to The Prodigy that seemed to scratch an itch in the ’90s UK rave scene. They may not have invented the genre, but The Prodigy took Big Beat to its logical extreme, pushing the genre’s conceptions of aggression and bombast into something that wasn’t afraid to go completely sonically overboard.
It wasn’t exactly the most subtle approach, but it was never intended to be. The Prodigy made loud, pounding club bangers. And people loved it.
“The Fat of the Land” has a solid, immovable place in dance music history, and few would deny that. The nature of that place, however, is up for some serious debate. Looking back on “The Fat of the Land” with twenty years of dance music progression in between now and then, one can’t help but wonder if at least some of the everlasting acclaim the album continues to garner comes from a sense of obligation due to the album’s historical and cultural (and arguably sonic) importance, or from critics continuing to view ’90s rave culture through rose-tinted glasses.
To put it bluntly (and probably to some, blasphemously), there are more than a few pieces of “The Fat of the Land” that simply haven’t aged well. When looking at the lingering influence of the album since its release, it has since become one of the chief points of influence for an entire ethic of electronic music production (mostly within the United States, ironically) that often seeks to streamline, intensify, and distort the idea of hardcore club music often seemingly just so producers can see how far they can push the extremes.
Certainly, without “The Fat of the Land” there’s a whole assembly of producers who would never have developed an effectively minimalist, bare-bones rave party atmosphere that moves bodies like little else can, but on the other side of that equation, without “The Fat of the Land,” there’d be no Skrillex, no “Human After All” (Daft Punk’s universally hated third album), and very little of the off-putting hyper-masculine, white fratboy-scented, self-described “filth” that has weaseled its way into the workstation of multi-million dollar DJs and bedroom Soundcloud producers alike. Essentially, “The Fat of the Land” is one of the key players in a decades’ long game that has resulted in a mass cultural ignorance of the origins of electronically produced dance music as a product of LGBT communities of color.
To be fair to The Prodigy and to “The Fat of the Land,” the lingering influence of anybody’s work is impossible to predict, and The Prodigy themselves are hardly responsible for any less-than-stellar musicians who take heavy influence from their work. That said, there are plenty of bones to pick with “The Fat of the Land” even within the context of only itself.
From the very beginning, the difference between now and 1997 has painfully clear, as the deliberate shock-factor of the opening track “Smack My Bitch Up” feels not provocative (as perhaps it did 20 years ago) and instead uselessly edgy.
The track itself, on a purely sonic level, does so little beyond standard big beat ideas that one can’t help but feel it was initially celebrated merely due to how it made people feel challenged and uncomfortable. In 2017, it only makes listeners feel bored.
Musical tropes like “shock value” become passé somewhere between Eminem’s third and fourth LPs. Feelings related to this idea pervade much of the album, as one can’t shake the sense that much the power and gravitas “The Fat of the Land” exuded in the late ’90s doesn’t have much staying power outside of the late ’90s, and at this point, amounts to little more than decently produced big beat.
Again, to be fair, there are moments here more than deserving of continued acclaim. “Breathe,” complete with an unmistakable bassline and dangerously creative Wu-Tang Clan sample, remains a staple of aggressive bass-heavy dance music (and, as it seems over the years, action movie soundtrack music). And “Firestarter” is still an infectious groove that boasts sharper political teeth than most of what one would expect from dance music in any genre.
Overall, “The Fat of the Land” features an air-tight production aesthetic such that every sample choice and drum hit feels smooth and deliberate, even when the experiments don’t quite work or aren’t particularly enjoyable, nothing quite feels misplaced (which is more than can be said for much of what the album has influenced.)
All things considered, more than just having a place in music history, there’s a lot to love about “The Fat of the Land,” but there’s just as much to examine critically.