For a period at the end of the ’80s, Public Enemy seemed like the only band that mattered. A New York hip-hop group avant-garde in sound and confrontational in delivery, their early UK shows were righteous eruptions of black identity and militant rage that made a generation of bowl-cut indie kids tremble in their anoraks – and radicalised more than a few in the process.
Hip-hop is a genre always in search of the new sound, and by the mid ’90s, Public Enemy had been supplanted by a new wave that were less angry, ripe for assimilation. Still, in 2015 it’s hard to say their message doesn’t still have legs. Politics thrives off ignorance and fear, American policemen still slay black people with impunity, and the corporations that rule our lives feel more omnipresent than ever. Add to that the fact Public Enemy have their ears open again – discussing ‘Man Plans God Laughs’, Chuck D has cited touchstones such as Run The Jewels, ‘Yeezus’ and Kendrick Lamar – and we’re poised for a full-on return to form.
It doesn’t quite happen, but that’s not for want of trying. The title track, with its pummeling breakbeats and guitar samples, recalls the blistering funk of the group’s ’80s heyday. And Chuck D still raps like a man doing knuckle push-ups, organising against white supremacy on ‘No Sympathy From The Devil’, picking over the history of African colonialism on ‘Mine Again’, and punning hard on ‘Earthizen’: “The earth without art is just ‘eh’.”
For all their efforts, though, ‘Man Plans…’ still feels like a band playing catch-up. In recent years, Public Enemy have reaffirmed their status as a powerful live act. But the beats on show here are often too flimsy to properly shoulder Chuck’s sledgehammer sloganeering. ‘Honky Talk Rules’ samples the Stones to take a pop at white musicians ripping off black bluesmen – nice idea, kind of hokey in practice. And while ‘Corporateplantationopoly’ is/> a jam – a twitchy funk with hypeman Flavor Flav cheerleading from the sidelines – its critique of wage slavery is heavy-handed, closer to the argot of conspiracy theory messageboards than the nuanced poetry of Kendrick’s ‘King Kunta’ or Kanye’s ‘New Slaves’.
At times, you want more rage. Other times, more clarity. You can’t doubt Public Enemy’s resolve. But on ‘Man Plans God Laughs’, music and message remain a notch out of synch.
- Director: Gary Rinaldo
- Record label: Spitdigital