The Lowdown: 2020 has become a year of extremes. A global pandemic that will forever affect the way that we live our lives. A political climate that has created division at a level that the United States has rarely seen. And a racial divide that has reached a boiling point. During times as distressing as these, it is important to have representation — a voice that holds the establishment accountable and gives an in-depth report on the current state of the nation and the world at large. For over 30 years, the legendary hip-hop crew Public Enemy have provided that hard-hitting soundtrack reporting back on our oft-troubled country.
Last Friday, PE released their 15th studio album, What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?. Their first on Def Jam since 1998, Chuck D, Flavor Flav, and DJ Lord provide commentary on the system, criticize the powers that be, and place a mirror in front of their listeners. Months after Flavor Flav was “fired” from the group, this project aims to reject our addiction to technology and challenge the masses to rely on independent thought rather than following the false narratives that the media creates.
The Good: What You Gonna Do… finds Public Enemy re-engaging with many of the same concepts they spoke about during the 1980s and ’90s while maintaining a deep sense of relevancy. Lead guitarist Khari Wynn provides an erratic, disruptive sound complimentary to the tone of the album. The iconic George “P-Funk” Clinton opens the album with “When the Grid Goes Down…” — a manifesto letting the world know that “we” (the disenfranchised, minorities, impoverished demographic) have arrived, embodying the spirit of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. Clinton’s poetic voice asks the question: “What you gonna do when the grid goes down?”, because our culture has been destructively connected to technology, so much so that we may not be able to survive if these luxuries were abruptly taken away. The information age has provided an infinite access to knowledge but can be detrimental if not utilized in a productive manner.
PE frequently take aim at the current presidential administration on the new album. “State of the Union (STFU)” (feat. DJ Premier) and “Beat Them All” focus on the importance of exercising the right to vote and not being empathetic towards politics — what affects one affects us all. “Whatever it takes, rid of this dictator/ POTUS my tail, a** debater,” Chuck D booms on the song’s first verse. “Primetime, Preemo, rhymetime/ Crime like no other, in this lifetime/ White House killer, deadin’ lifelines/ Vote this joke out … or die tryin’.” The album’s three interludes (“Merica Mirror”, “Crossroads Burning”, and “Don’t Look at the Sky”) and its closing (“I Am Black”) are calls to action in the sense of understanding the negative influence that social media has on the minds of millennials, as well as highlighting America’s original sin of racism.
The collaborations on What You Gonna Do… are lengthy to say the least. The aforementioned George Clinton is also featured on the Cypress Hill-assisted “GRID”. B-Real adds to the gravity on the song with lines like “Communication breakdown, it’s a takedown/ Are you awake now consumed by a fake clown/ World Wide Web keep the spiders fed/ Looking at my feed, trolls feed but knowledge supersedes.” On “Public Enemy Number Won”, the group bring back the glory days of Def Jam Records, with verses from Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, and Terminator X. Ice-T and PMD also make an appearance on “Smash the Crowd”, furthering that old-school feel.
Throughout the years, “Fight the Power” has been the quintessential Public Enemy jam and one of the most revered anthems in hip-hop. Although still appropriate for modern times, PE decided to update the original version by collaborating with Nas, Jahi, Black Thought, YG, ?uestlove, and Rapsody. Socially conscious Carolina emcee Rapsody has the most poignant line of the track: “You love Black Panther but not Fred Hampton.” “Fight the Power: Remix 2020” comes with the same tenacity as its predecessor did back in 1989. In true prophet fashion, Nas pays homage to Public Enemy’s influence by saying, “Yo Chuck, I’m fighting the power right now/ Thanks to you, Flav, and PE putting it down/ Putting your life on the line, so I can rap now.” In this racially charged era, the lyrics on “Fight the Power: Remix 2020” should resonate for years to come, similar to the original.
The Bad: Although the substance of What You Gonna Do… is timely, the fact that this album has a mixture of new material and previously released songs (curiously from 2017’s Nothing Is Quick in the Desert) confuses the experience even if it doesn’t muddy the message. The themes in this album are much the same as their older projects – but with Public Enemy, listeners know what they are going to get. The fact that the concepts are the same as most of their catalog can seem tiresome to some, but it also reiterates the notion that many of the problems we faced in 1989 still remain relevant. Still, why they return to several cuts from their last proper album instead of staying in their new vein doesn’t quite add up.
The Verdict: What You Gonna Do… is a social, economic, and political statement for 2020. Chuck D’s hard-hitting lyrics and the album’s dynamic production can serve as a soundtrack for the American Dream (or nightmare, depending on your perspective) for the foreseeable future. Public Enemy seem here to stay, but the truth is — they have never really left.
Essential Tracks: “GRID”, “Public Enemy Number Won”, and “Fight the Power: Remix 2020”
Pick up a copy of Public Enemy’s What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? here…