Public Enemy’s new album, Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age, has ignited a gritty range war among New York hip hop critics; the spat was fueled by a review by the black writer known as Toure, who penned a ferocious put-down in Rolling Stone’s lead review slot and got pegged an Uncle Tom by the Amsterdam News in return. I don’t like epithets like that, but it is true that Rolling Stone hasn’t run a severely negative review of a major artist in about 15 years; if Toure’s piece ushers in a long-awaited new age of intellectual honesty in the magazine’s handling of white artists as well as black I’ll stop suspecting there’s a racial double standard at work here. Anyway, the album is no Fear of a Black Planet, but it does show the band can distinguish itself even without the hands-on studio prowess of the Bomb Squad production team, here credited as executive producers. The first track, “Whole Lotta Love Goin On in the Middle of Hell,” explodes with the famous springy PE sound; the second, “Give It Up,” is one of the band’s most irresistible singles. Chuck D provides the moral leadership he should on “So Whatcha Gone Do Now?,” a blistering attack on gangsta rappers, and crafts a crude but moving bit of street poetry in “They Used to Call It Dope.” Elsewhere on the record he demonstrates that he’s still capable of some whacky political rhetoric (as he also did on the MTV Video Awards, in his incoherent declaration that Mike Tyson was a political prisoner), and the band’s doing no one a favor by including a long answering-machine message from their erstwhile publicist (and soi disant “media assassin”) Harry Allen. Live the band is a crapshoot; like too many rap artists, Chuck D doesn’t seem to care enough about his audience to give them clear sound through a decent system. But when you can hear what he’s saying, he fronts one of the most compelling shows in rock. Saturday, 11 PM, Riviera, 4746 N. Racine; 275-6800 or 559-1212.