3 Decades After Their Explosive Debut, Public Enemy Are Still the Soundtrack to the Revolution

New album What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? is their first for Def Jam in 25 years

Music Reviews Public Enemy
3 Decades After Their Explosive Debut, Public Enemy Are Still the Soundtrack to the Revolution

If there was ever a time for a new Public Enemy album, it’s 2020. During a year of clarity—one in which we’ve all had to make hard decisions about who we are, what we believe and what we stand for—Public Enemy’s sharp return just in time to moderate the revolution is one of few bright spots in a shit-show of a year.

What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? is Public Enemy’s first album released on legendary label Def Jam (where they got their start back in 1987) in 25 years. The 17-track project is equal parts unfettered urgency and nostalgia, as Chuck D and Flavor Flav offer no-nonsense advice about surviving and analyzing the times, while also reminding listeners that they’ve been truth-telling for nearly 30 years. It’s almost like they’re hinting that if folks would’ve listened to them in the first place, maybe we wouldn’t be here now.

The lead single “Fight The Power: Remix 2020” stabs at both ideas—reminiscing on the powerful 1989 song that skyrocketed their careers and immediately became a protest anthem, while also bringing in some of hip-hop’s current thought leaders, including YG and Jahi, Nas, Black Thought and Rapsody, who is ferocious when she raps, “4 fingers on my palm screaming fight, change the policy, defund, buy back our property / You love black panther but not Fred Hampton / Word to the Howards and the Aggies and the Hamptons.”

From the start of the album, when funk genius George Clinton pontificates on the interlude about “socially engineered anarchy induced chaos,” PE sets the tone for what’s to come, agonizing Black Mirror-style over the weird, sometimes terrifying effects technology has had on our humanity and politics, while reclaiming their space as hip-hop’s astute elder statesmen (Chuck turned 60 in August and Flav is 61), calling out corruption and trying to make sense of it all.

That leads into one of the hardest songs on the album, “Grid,” featuring Cypress Hill, where they question “What you gonna do when the grid goes down?” over a rolling, beating bass line. Chuck D delivers a concise warning in his signature baritone, while Flav stamps his rhyme with ad-libs: “Aww Sht! No more GRID / We all addicted— men, women, and kids / No internet, no text, and no tweets / Will look like the 80’s with fiends in the streets / Aww snap! No apps just maybe perhaps / No GRID is what we need for new human contact.” B-Real, who along with Chuck was part of the rap-rock supergroup Prophets of Rage until they disbanded in 2019, is sharp as ever on the second verse, lamenting the division created by social media platforms: “I gotta theory if you hear me but you wanna fear me / Dumb us down then divide us up I see it clearly.”

The DJ Premier-produced “State of the Union (STFU)” is another standout aimed at Donald Trump, as is much of the album. Stamped with a heavy bass line and crisp samples, Flav shouts the hook “State of the union / Shut the fuck up / Sorry ass muther fucker / Stay away from me,” which manages to work in spite of its simplicity.

Nostalgia is a heavy theme on this album. Rap’s legends—Beastie Boys, Terminator X, and Run DMC—show up to reminisce with Chuck and Flav on “Public Enemy Number Won,” a fitting feature for PE’s Def Jam return.

Sonically, a significant chunk of the album pulls from Chuck’s rock-rap vibe he molded with Prophets of Rage, including “Smash The Crowd,” which features rap legend Ice T and PMD, and “Go At It,” featuring Jahi of the second iteration of Public Enemy.

While it chugs along in some spots in the middle of the album, and is often a bit on-the-nose with its preaching about the ills of our new technology-dependent society on tracks like “Yesterday Man,” What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? is mostly Public Enemy doing what they’ve always done—offering insight about what’s happening in the world around us and prodding folks to wake up and do the right thing. It’s a space they’ve held for over three decades, and one where they’re always welcome.

Jacinta Howard is an Atlanta-based culture and entertainment journalist, and a best-selling independent romance author. A former entertainment editor at Upscale magazine, she has been published at Thrillist, Atlanta magazine, XXL, The Source, and HipHopDX, and believes there’s an Andre 3000 lyric to fit any situation. You can follow her on Twitter.

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