Public Enemy – ‘What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down?’ review: the icons’ finest effort in decades

On their return to Def Jam records, the iconic group lend the rage and wisdom to pandemic-stricken America

When news arrived last month that Public Enemy had re-signed to Def Jam Records – a cultural institution that they helped build with the likes of LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys – hip-hop fans got excited, and rightfully so. Back on the label that helped turn them into cult heroes, the radical rap group, whose current lineup consists of Chuck D, Flavor Flav and DJ Lord, also announced ‘What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down?’, a new album made up of fresh material and a few recycled tracks from 2017’s ‘Nothing Is Quick In The Desert’.

Unafraid of backlash, Public Enemy have always told it like it is, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Black America and calling out the atrocities often brought on by government action. Chuck D, the group’s valiantly perceptive frontman, loves to peel back the layers of a bent system on a quest for truth and deliver his findings directly to the people. There’s never been a more opportune time to share this type of message-driven music than right now.

The world is in a disorderly state – whether because of COVID-19, the killings of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of police, or voting controversies surrounding the upcoming US election – and often people find themselves hopping online to make sense of it. We’re in an age where the internet is king but fake news runs circles around the less informed like a digital Wild West.

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So what would actually happen if online communication ceased to exist? “Folks might have to pick up a book, pick up a pen,” Chuck raps on ‘GRID’, the album’s electrifying opening track, where he also calls out “socially engineered chaos” and casts light on a new addiction: “Digital mental health clinics worse than a pandemic.” This is not the sound of a veteran slamming the youth for bad habits; rather, a message of empowerment.

But more than a digital shutdown, what really scares much of white America – and its current president – is a more diverse and fairer society, one where equal rights is standard practice for all. Taking aim at Donald Trump on ‘State Of The Union (STFU)’, Public Enemy channel the same explosive energy that saw them rewrite the rules of what hip-hop could be on their genre-defining third album ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’. “State of the Union, shut the fuck up/Sorry ass motherfucker, stay away from me,” Flavor Flav raps, delivering a gut punch over a backbreaking slab of blistering DJ Premier production.

The group’s 15th studio album is somewhat of a party in the face of disaster. They call upon pals like Cypress Hill, George Clinton, Ice-T, Nas and Black Thought of The Roots to join the fight. But owing to their return to Def Jam, there’s one collaboration that shouts louder than most.

With help from Run-DMC and former Def Jam label mates Mike D and Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, the group take a trip down memory lane on ‘Public Enemy Number Won’. Complete with the Bomb Squad’s galvanising sample flip of Fred Wesley and The J.B.’s ‘Blow Your Head’, the group rework their classic 1987 track ‘Public Enemy No.1’ while toasting to their success and longevity in an industry quick to chew up its inhabitants and spit them out. Lord knows, they’ve earned it.

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‘Smash The Crowd’ keeps the camaraderie alive with a united front that sees Ice-T and PMD join in for a dose of claustrophobic shotgun-funk. The menacing ‘Go At It’ plays like a game of musical charades, while the rock-tinged ‘Yesterday Man’ hears Public Enemy stand up for the more seasoned artists all too often discounted based upon their age.

Then there’s the 2020 remix of the group’s political anthem ‘Fight The Power’. As relevant now as it was in 1989, the all-star update tackles systemic racism and police brutality, while the thunderous drums and stacked loops light up the ageless backdrop.

After Chuck lights a candle on ‘Rest In Beats’ for hip-hop’s fallen icons, Flavor Flav takes a moment to pay tribute to friend Clyde Bazile Jr. on ‘R.I.P. Blackat’. A renowned graphic designer who died earlier this year, Bazile was best known for designing cover art for rappers such as Lil Flip, Pimp C and Paul Wall. Slowing things down with a bed of weepy keys and heavy-hearted drum kicks, Flavor’s memories of his late pal cut deep, revealing that Bazile helped him during a time of desperate need: “Then you came through and you helped save my life/And I’ll never forget you my dude, my boy for life.

Still bringing the noise after being in the game for over 30 years, ‘What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down?’ is Public Enemy’s best effort since 1998’s ‘He Got Game’. Continuing to hold leaders accountable in a time when it’s truly needed, the group’s fearless expressions of truth sound right at home pinned to a jet-fuelled backdrop of rip-roaring beats that hammer your eardrums and capture everything hip-hop should stand for.

Details

  • Release date: September 25
  • Record label: Def Jam
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  • Related Topics
  • Rap
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