The past 18 months have been a bizarre time to be a Public Enemy fan. The group seemed to split into pieces, with Flavor Flav dismissed for his wayward behaviour. As it turns out, though, the dismissal was merely a publicity stunt – an unusual way to get attention, but it certainly worked.
The prospect of losing Public Enemy seemed to bring the group’s profile back into sharp focus. A return to Def Jam also helped matters, but in truth their reputation as rap’s hardest-working bulwarks should hardly be in dispute. New album ‘What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down?’ is testament to this, a burly 16 track workout that blends the old with the new, continually side-stepping expectations while honouring their past.
At its best, it’s a real thrill. ‘Public Enemy Number Won’ is flecked with electro flavours, exploring the roots and DNA of hip-hop culture alongside Def Jam alumni Mike D and Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys. The DJ Premier bolstered ‘State Of The Union (STFU)’ is a riveting workout, dominated by the Devil-may-care creativity that marks the group’s finest work.
There’s a sense, sometimes, of a band out of time. ‘Yesterday Man’ for example - with its Sunset Strip circa ‘88 guitar line and repeated cry of “what happened?” - re-positions Public Enemy as time travellers, stumbling on to the fragmented, problematic pop landscape of 2020. Indeed, they travel in the other direction on a fresh ‘Fight The Power’ remix, opening up their past to new interpretations from Nas, Rapsody, Black Thought, and more.
DJ Lord’s production throughout is potent and challenging, with Public Enemy aiming for something up-front, and muscular. ‘If You Can’t Join ‘Em Beat ‘Em’ raises the levels still further, while ‘Smash The Crowd’ is tailor made for those explosive live shows – it’s just an enormous shame we’ll have to wait so long to see the group in action.
Public Enemy’s first new release since 2017’s ‘Nothing Is Quick In The Desert’, ‘What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down?’ isn’t without its flaws. Sitting very much in their own lane, the group prefer to finesse – rather than overhaul – their sound, and as a result it can sometimes veer into the predictable. That said, Public Enemy never once let the energy drop, their raw sense of purpose intact.
Up front old school hip-hop that utilises the best in modern production techniques, ‘What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down?’ is an electrifying experience.
Words: Robin Murray
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