For their 15th album, Public Enemy are back on Def Jam, the powerhouse label they helped build with their golden-age hip-hop classics. It’s a well-timed return to the center of the industry. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has seen a reawakening of the protest radicalism that PE originally brought to rap, from Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” to Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” to DaBaby’s BLM remix of “Rockstar.” So when they ask, “Is rap still the black CNN?” — embodying the voice of the music’s traditionalist gatekeepers on What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? — the answer this time around is actually, “Yes, it sort of is.” The fact that Chuck D and Flavor Flav remain at once hopeful and skeptical, honoring their own past and the music’s while pushing it forward, is a huge part of this record’s passionate, agitating, cranky energy.
Being weirdly relevant yet proudly in their own world, passionately urgent yet resolutely ornery, has often been a PE hallmark, and here they nail a potent mix of “fight the powers that be” and “get the fuck off my lawn.” On “GRID,” featuring funk god George Clinton and Cypress Hill, Chuck goes off on techno overload and iPhone-zombie addiction (“No internet no text and no tweets/Will look like the Eighties with fiends in the streets”). It’s a great message in a time when internet-rabbit-hole deep-diving has turned suburban Republican moms into Pizzagate psychos, adorably delivered in a way that sounds a little like pissed-off parents trying their kids off TikTok: “Aww snap! No apps, just maybe perhaps/No grid is what we need for new human contact.” Elsewhere, the album is suffused with nostalgia for Public Enemy’s Eighties glory days; their old Def Jam label mates Mike D and Ad Rock of the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC all pop up on, along with Terminator X, a new version of their 1987 jam “Public Enemy No. 1,” (titled “Public Enemy Number Won”), while on “Rest in Beats,” Chuck turns a celebration of departed hip-hop figures into a demand for the music itself to live up to their legacy,
When The Grid Goes Down is at its best when PE’s vision is generous and expansive, when they create a vision of their own history that echoes into our own moment. Rather than a retread, “Fight the Power 2020” is an inspiring version of organic culture: the same bedrock James Brown beat that stirred millions back in 1989, with new verses from Nas, Black Thought of the Roots, Jahi from the group PE 2.0, Trump-slaying Compton rapper YG, and socially-conscious North Carolina MC Rapsody, who beautifully updates the song’s street-march bullhorn power with lines like “You love Black Panther but not Fred Hampton” and, as her voice rises to meet the moment, “Fight for Breonna Taylor and the pain of her mother.” When Chuck comes in to rap his “Elvis was a hero to most” verse from the original, your hair stands on end a little. PE’s battle-armored sonic attack feels alive as well, connecting the miasmic hard-rock-funk of Funkadelic and Rage Against the Machine (“Beat Them All”) to the rolling brownout drone assault of Run the Jewels, whom Chuck name-checks here along with a record store full of other contemporaries, peers, and inheritors.
At 60 years old, his voice hasn’t aged a bit (just like Marv Albert’s), so his anti-Trump snaps on “State of the Union (STFU)” rumble with mountainous authority over DJ Premier’s cracking beat. For his part, Flavor Flav remains a wonder, always there to leaven the chaos with some human–non-sequitur comic relief. Earlier this year, Flav’s inability show up for a Public Enemy set at a Bernie Sanders rally led to his dismissal from the group, a decision Chuck later clarified to be a “hoax.” In any case, they sound pretty copacetic here. On the impressively hard-hitting “Toxic,” as Chuck rips off a spry verse, the beat drops off and Flav ambles through to compliment his partner with brotherly pride, “Yo! That shit sound good on the record what you just did.” It’s a sweet moment, and true, too. The most heartening thing about this record isn’t the critical takes, it’s the guys bringing the noise.