Let’s face it: Public Enemy are getting on. This year marks 33 years since the Long Island group released their classic, wildly popular Rick Rubin-produced debut ‘Yo! Bum Rush the Show’. So how is it, fifteen albums down the line, Public Enemy can still muster up the energy to bring the noise? 2020 has seen the group inexplicably sack founding member Flavor Flav, only to shrug it off as a hoax: “Does it take doing crazy sht [sic] or catastrophe to wake people up?”, hype man Chuck D wrote. Seemingly so. As one of the last major acts of late ‘80s/early ‘90s still consistently releasing music, what can Public Enemy do now to stay relevant amongst the wave of new rappers that PE are so at odds with?
As it turns out, it is fairly simple: Public Enemy just need to make as much noise as possible. Their fifteenth record is no different: ‘What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down?’ will not relaunch them into stardom but it has its highlights. It is unsurprising, really; for decades, they have laid the foundations for noisy political protest rap and now when the United States need some focus, Public Enemy’s latest is more of the same – a stark surface-level entry into a discography scattered with sparks of brilliance and piles of inadvertent flip flopping diatribes.
To their credit, if Public Enemy have something to say, you can count on them to speak their mind. It is what has got them this far; their persistent, at times controversial, opinions paved the way for many artists to rap with their chests. On album fifteen, Public Enemy stay political. ‘Toxic’ is an attack on President Trump, with Chuck D firing: “Those who voted this POTUS, killing kin for the win, citizens suffering while he be balling”. While ‘State of the Union (STFU)’ provides some real punch. Here, Flavor Flav is irresistible: “State of the Union, shut the fuck up, sorry ass motherfucker, stay away from me.” While it is the ever reliable Chuck D who goes in the hardest, referring to Trump as “…unprecedented, demented, many president’d, Nazi gestapo dictator defended.” The song goes in heavy and sounds it, the production steals the show here. If it were not for the combined vocal force, however, it would not have succeeded.
‘Beat Them All’ is an all-too-obvious attempt to rekindle the flame that roared at Public Enemy’s commercial peak. The titular words make up the entire chorus – they are passionately chanted by a large group. With a slick and gritty guitar lead, it yearns to be the centrepiece of a protest. However calculated it may be, it is at least a spirited cut. The same can be said for its successor, ‘Smash the Crowd’. With Ice-T and PMD joining forces, it flows effortlessly from the previous track. And it really rips: “Masters of the mosh pit, hardcore rap shit, black mask shit, pop off get your ass kicked”, Ice-T snarls. He is having a blast and it stands out: it is one of the first times, ten songs in, a voice on the project carries some character.
However great it is to hear names as respected as Public Enemy refuse to settle and persist in speaking truth to power, this album is far from perfect. It is dense, flat and ever so slightly boring. Their voices lack grit, barely matching the bitter words they carry. It is not just their voices that are dated, some of their words are too. On ‘Yesterday Man’, Daddy-O awkwardly asks: “Kanye marrying Kim… what happened? Bruce Jenner turned to fem… what happened?” Is it a critique on the “realness” of modern rap and masculinity, or just transphobia? It isn’t clear enough. Although it isn’t a Public Enemy member directly expressing these remarks, they had to sign off on it so they cannot be too opposed to those views. It is a cold and callous addition to what is a great song.
Nonetheless the real saving grace on this project is the final stretch. The pairing of ‘Rest in Beats’ and ‘RIP Blackat’ are meditative and thought-through. They stand out for their quality. The latter sees Flavor Flav paying his respects to dear friend Clyde Bazile, Jr. (of Blackat Productions) who died from Congestive Heart Failure in January 2020. The beautiful, chilling cut truly is Flav’s; his unfiltered verses are a lot to digest (“I started having my darkest days, up in the streets of New York secretly digging my grave, with the drugs and the thugs, everything that was white I dug it out the rugs”). Whereas the former is a general tribute to not just many lost rap figures, but a tribute to an era of old. There is a critique of the new gen (“The love for the art now flipped into dough, we lost real flows to mumbles and memes”) but it isn’t out of spite: it is a longing for an era now gone.
At this point, Public Enemy do not need to prove anything. Those that know of them, will be familiar with their track record. They speak up and raise volume – this album is packed with heavy drum beats and shrieking electric guitars. ‘What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?’ is not their finest hour by a long shot – it is mismatched, uneven and occasionally drab. Regardless, Chuck D and Flavor Flav thankfully are together and doing what they do best: bringing the noise.