Unfortunately, Public Enemy is not in full effect on its latest album, an exercise in righteous nostalgia, not righteous anger.
This week, Public Enemy releases its latest long player, What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down?. It is the iconic rap group’s fifteenth studio album, and marks a return to Def Jam Recordings. The label released PE’s first six albums, including the four album run from 1987 to 1991, that shook the foundations of hip hop. The soundtrack to Spike Lee’s 1998 film, He Got Game, marked the group’s last record to be released on the pioneering label.
The original group, composed of Chuck D and Flavor Flav, also included help from the incendiary production crew, the Bomb Squad, and the DJ, Terminator X. They revolutionized the sound and fury of hip hop, starting with their first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, and, perhaps, culminating with their third, 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet.
PE’s fourth album from 1991, Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black, was also a high water mark in the group’s history, but after that, its output was uneven, sometimes notably so, with a few scattered gems here and there, across various records. “He Got Game,” “Gotta Give the Peeps What They Need,” “Watch the Door,” “Harder Than You Think,” all generated hope that, maybe, the group had one last masterpiece left to create.
Over the years, Chuck and Flav experimented with the PE sound, in an effort to perhaps shake things up a bit and stimulate inspiration. They went lean on New Whirl Odor, from 2005, and they added hardcore San Francisco spitter Paris into the mix for Rebirth of A Nation, from 2006. Jahi gives it his best shot for Enemy Radio, an act without Flavor Flav, which released the mostly unlistenable Loud Is Not Enough earlier this year. The group has also repeatedly recycled and reinterpreted their older, classic material, mostly to dubious effect, across various albums. PE often seemed to look backward, not forward, and the newer music, especially starting in the early 2000s, suffered. Chuck and Flav seemed content to rest on their laurels rather than blaze new trails.
Public Enemy has always been self-referential. New songs reference old songs, new album titles refer to older ones, new lyrics build on lyrics that came before, all allusions, or inside jokes for dedicated fans to spot. In general, there is nothing wrong with approaching art in this way. It’s an old joke that successful writers rewrite the same book over and over again; for each subsequent project they simply shake up the plot and change the names of the characters. Mining your old art to create new art is as old as the creation of art itself. The real sign of artistry, however, is spinning the self-referential into something new, compelling and beautiful. Releasing live, or inferior remix versions of your most popular songs is commerce, not art, and it is something that has plagued Public Enemy over the years. (Now would be an appropriate time to drop a biting comment about the Run The Jewels Merchandising Juggernaut, but I digress. They’re doing political rap pretty well right now.)
The current American Dystopia did spark something in Chuck D. In 2016, he teamed up with Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello and rapper B-Real of Cypress Hill to form Prophets Of Rage, a rock-rap outfit that wanted to use its music to, presumably, help “Unfuck The World,” and much fuckery has happened since then. (“Prophets of Rage,” of course was track fifteen on Public Enemy’s 1988 album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back: “I gotta right to be hostile, man, my people been persecuted.” Self-referential, right?) But Prophets Of Rage – the group – was mostly an unholy mess. It may have been a great idea on paper but Prophets resembled more of a caricature of Rage, with Chuck and B-Real filling in for the latter band’s lead singer-shouter, Zack de la Rocha. And that’s saying a lot for a band, RATM, that was often a caricature of itself, especially at its messy end. (Rap-rock enthusiasts, settle down. I have two words for you: Limp Bizkit.)
Which brings us to the new album, What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? The good news is that Chuck D sounds fine. His voice is still commanding, his flow still authoritative, his spitting crisp. Believe it or not, Chuck turned sixty this summer, but his voice displays no hint of his age. He’s still fierce on the mike, and still an underrated emcee, who demands your attention when he raps. In the title cut, it sounds as though his voice is processed, but throughout the album you still hear the same Chuck for whom “My ’98 was an ’87 on record, yo.”
Flavor Flav is back at it, too, a hype man for the ages, who also adds tone, context and humor to the proceedings. The two men possess a unique relationship, each complementing the other and they both know when to push the other man’s buttons. Flav can still rap, in a clear, simple and declarative style, when he’s not functioning as the Greek Chorus, and his (presumably) ad-libs are on point, too.
The album’s lead single, “State of the Union, STFU,” produced by another legend, DJ Premier of Gang Starr, one of the best producers of all time, glaringly illustrates all of the album’s problems. The beat is booming and bouncing, but the lyrics are uninspired and trite. Flav handles the hook: “State of the union/Shut the fuck up/Sorry ass muther fucker/Stay away from me.” Wait. STFU? Flav, that’s all you got?
Chuck raps in the second verse: “Mister I am the law/And you are not/In fact, I’m god/I got a lot/Mister these united breaks/Take over, come over Orange hair/Fear the comb-over/Here’s another scare/Keep them hands in the air/Better not breathe.”
Okay, okay, hold up. “Fear the comb over?” The Trump Administration is target rich environment for both satire and for stoking existential dread, but somehow Chuck and Flav miss the mark. Their attempts at cogent commentary fall flat and feel stale. In fact, throughout the record, the writing lacks bite and often sounds more awkward than artful.
Other lyrics in other tracks are groaners, or worse. For example, in the song “Yesterday Man,” Daddy-O raps this: “Kanye marrying Kim …what happened?/Bruce Jenner turned to fem …what happened?/Is Rap still the Black CNN? …what happened?/Is Run and DMC still friends? …what happened?” “Bruce Jenner turned fem?” No, Daddy-O, emphatically no.
“Toxic” contains this line: “Toxic/See em?/Sell it and box it/Savage/They
Say we cant stop it/Flav PE Rock it Antetokounmpo/No Mutombo, I blocks it.” Huh?
“Fight The Power 2020” slightly finds the outrage and sort of brings some noise, but is a new version of the song necessary? Perhaps. It is a song we surely need now to inspire us, but a retread? It feels deflated. The guest verses add nothing to the original. The most animated bars come from Rapsody, who can hold her own any time and any where, and outshines the men around her. She delivers the best line in the song: “You love Black Panther but not Fred Hampton,” and pays respect to Breonna Taylor.
The other features lack urgency and the cameos deserve second-guessing. Nas? Provides some street cred and is mostly adequate. Black Thought? A facile, thinking man or woman’s rapper, and pretty good. YG? Not bad, but nothing distinctive in his verse, except a clever allusion to Tupac. Jahi? Out of his league. And Chuck D? He raps the same verse he rapped in the original version of the song, thirty years ago. It is a lost opportunity.
Why not go for broke here. Feature some strivers or, even better, go big. Can you imagine Cardi B or Megan Thee Stallion contributing a verse to “Fight The Power 2020?” Think about that for a minute. See what I mean?
The other features on the album raise more questions. PMD is on hand, but how about a joint appearance with Erick Sermon for this record. Instead, Ice-T drops some bars. Two of the Beastie Boys crash the End of the World party, crack a (bad) joke and do some self-referencing of their own on Public Enemy Number Won, but two Beastie Boys without the third, MCA, is not the Beasties Boys. For good measure, Run-DMC also join this song, and the result is a geriatric posse cut. George Clinton, one of the most beloved and influential eccentrics in popular music, provides the LP with an introduction, and is featured on “Grid,” but his talent and verbal mysticism are wasted. Overall, the average age of the guests on the album is probably around fifty-five.
In the end, Grid is an exercise in righteous nostalgia, not righteous anger, an album that looks backward, rather than forward. Chuck and Flav may have another masterpiece left inside of them, straining to come out, but this album is not it. It is merely adequate, and that is not enough for now, or the times in which we live.
What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? arrives Friday.