Public Enemy has been bringing the noise for 35 years, and the fiery commentary of Chuck D is especially timely in 2020. With the cultural backdrop of pandemic anxiety, election year rhetoric and the ongoing fight against systemic racism, P.E. returns with What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? The Strong Island crew's fifteenth album is a meteor of focused rage as only Public Enemy can deliver, bolstered by their return to Def Jam and the clearest target for their ire in the current American president.
"GRID" features a winning guest spot from funk godfather George Clinton, as well as a verse from B-Real of Cypress Hill that echoes his work with Chuck in their supergroup Prophets Of Rage. The album's first single, "State Of the Union (STFU)," finds P.E. teaming up with none other than the legendary DJ Premier, and Preemo laces Chuck and Flav with production that sits comfortably alongside both his oeuvre and their established approach.
"Public Enemy Number Won" is one of the album's most buzzed-about tracks, featuring a Def Jam family reunion, of sorts, with MIke D and Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys and Run-D.M.C. (who was never actually on Def Jam but was closely affiliated via Russell Simmons and Rush Management.) The track is a throwback to P.E.'s early classic single and the updated version is a winning reboot, with DMC discussing his struggles with alcohol and Run sounding invigorated ("Got my whole swag from Two Fifth and Hollis/Run got the wisdom, D got the knowledge"). The slow-rolling "Toxic" finds Chuck pondering how much music can shape culture and can music save anything when the industry controls the music.
The hard rock of "Yesterday Man" features Daddy-O of Stetsasonic and references everything from Kanye and Kim, to Rakim. Like "Public Enemy No. 1," another earlier P.E. classic is revisited with "Fight The Power: Remix 2020," a track that features Nas, Rapsody, The Roots, Jahi and Y.G. revamping P.E.'s most celebrated anthem for the age of Trump and Black Lives Matter.
"Beat Them All" lumbers along with an ominous groove that recalls standards like "Shut 'Em Down," as Chuck nimbly bounces over the track and the hook reminds you that "If you can't join 'em, you know you gotta beat 'em." Ice-T and PMD show up for the raucous, should-be-an-anthem "Smash The Crowd,"another guitar-driven track that's one of the album's highlights. When Ice-T raps "I crash crowds from all angels and destroy bars like Hell's Angels," its the perfect fiery counter to PMD's cold-as-ice flow. Go At It" adds to what's probably the most rock-oriented sequence of tracks on the album; with longtime P.E. affiliate Jahi riding shotgun.
One of the album's latter moments, "Rest In Beats" is a shout-out to the legends lost in Hip-Hop; from Scott La Rock to Tupac and Afeni Shakur to Mac Dre to MC Breed and J. Dilla and Pimp C.; while also shouting out classic record stores and "everyone being in the same studio" and rap groups. And the album semi-closes with Flav shouting out his deceased friend, Blackat. It's the most personal moment on the album, as Flav confesses his drug addiction: "Everything that was white/I dug it out the rugs." A poem from Ariel dedicated to Black women is the album's final moments.
What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? finds Public Enemy as potent as they've been in years. That it comes bolstered by Def Jam's clout affirms just how necessary Public Enemy remains as icons of Hip-Hop that isn't afriad to be topical and proves that Chuck, Flav and the crew sit comfortably alongside the Black Lives Matter generation, and proves they're listening to it, just as much as it proves the legends have still have so much to say.