Album Review: Public Enemy – What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down
William Thornton shares his opinion on Public Enemy’s brand new album.
Coming off the back of my last review for Exeposé music, in which I took a look at Run the Jewels incredible fourth album, as I was listening to hip-hop legends Public Enemy’s newest album, What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down, I couldn’t help but feel a strange yet disappointing sense of Deja-vu. This should be no surprise, of course, as just like Run the Jewels, Public Enemy has long been known as a hugely political rap group, almost to the point of infamy: their second and third albums, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet respectively, were both enormous strides forward in the face of popularising politically-charged hip-hop in the eighties, which makes it all the more sad when I started listening to this album and realised that Public Enemy really have lost that incredible spark that charged their first few albums.
First and foremost, however, this album surprised me. It surprised me before I even listened to the album, mostly through my discovery that this album even existed in the first place. Before What You Gonna Do Dropped at the end of September, I was in total confusion as to if Public Enemy even existed anymore. Reading their Wikipedia page proved hugely uninformative, as it simultaneously told me that the group had split up, rebranded, and reformed all in the same article. This confusion is mostly thanks to some behind the scenes drama that occurred in the past few years between the group’s leading members Chuck D and Flava Flav, in which Cuck performed solo as Public Enemy at a Bernie Sanders rally in America without the consent of Fava. Since this event, Flava apparently left the group and then re-joined the group, but then it turned out this whole event was a hoax invented by Chuck, except for the fact that Flava then reported he actually had no idea of this hoax he was a part of. It’s an extremely messy and confusing affair, but all that matters now is that both Chuck D and Flava Flav are back together for What You Gonna Do.
Saying that, I feel that this behind the scenes drama really has effected Public Enemy, as upon listening to What You Gonna Do there is a strange disparity between many aspects of the different tracks, and overall the general feel of the album’s sound is just a bit off, especially compared to what I expected from this politically-charged album. The record starts off with the track ‘GRID’, in which Chuck D goes off on the idea the album is based on: the over-reliance of social media. This is one of my main problems with the album, as well as this track in particular: that it’s main theme is just a bit rubbish. Making an album around how much time people spend on social media and electronics is a novel idea at best, but more importantly is something that has been done over, and over, and over again. Black Mirror has been fixated on this idea all throughout its five seasons, and it hasn’t been an organic or interesting idea in years. Everyone is aware of social media and its dominance over our lives (and obviously this is by no means a good thing) but making a whole album centred around this concept in 2020 just feels redundant and very odd. With all that’s going on I the world right now, that’s the idea Chuck D wanted to centre his album around?
Making an album around how much time people spend on social media and electronics is a novel idea at best, but more importantly is something that has been done over, and over, and over again.
Moving on from this motif, however, the album still really doesn’t hold up very well. There are a couple of track previously released as singles that I found quite enjoyable to listen to – ‘State of the Union (STFU)’ is probably my favourite track of this album, as it manages to tackle relevant political ideas in a fun and engaging way, something that Public Enemy has always been very good at. Flava Flav particularly shines on this track, something that can’t be said for the rest of the album. The rest of the tracks are a strange mix of remixes, rereleases, and original tracks, none of which particularly shine. Even the remix of the group’s classic hit ‘Fight the Power’ feels boring and dull, and the Nas feature that I was very interested to hear feels slow and lifeless. Quite a feat.
I think that’s the best way to describe this album really. Lifeless. Apart from a couple of standout singles this album really is a chore to get through – it’s not a particularly long alum, but I still felt bored and disinterested as it went on, something that’s quite disappointing seeing as It Takes a Nation of Millions is a longer album that I can listen to over and over and never get tired of. Maybe it’s because of the conflict between Public Enemy’s core member behind the scenes, or maybe it’s just a sign that the group is becoming too detached from what works at the moment in the political rap game, but all I can say on the matter is that this album was tedious, and above all just plain disappointing.