This review of the brand new PE release comes from Heather Starks, July 25th on the In Your Speakers website…
For over twenty five years, Public Enemy has made a career out of decrying social injustice and taking on corporate greed through heated political raps that stand unmatched to this day. They were one of the first groups to attempt what is now known as rap-metal, collaborating with Anthrax for a remake of “Bring the Noise” and thereby forcing two previously opposing genres to shake hands and play nice. Without them, music as we know it might sound entirely different. Numerous artists have claimed them to be among their greatest influences, from Kurt Cobain all the way to the Icelandic princess herself, Bjork. So when they announced the pending release of Man Plans God Laughs, there was a collective feeling of excitement in the air.
It could not have come at more appropriate time considering our current state of affairs. “Black Lives Matter” has become a rallying cry for the African-American community, tired of watching young men and women being gunned down by the very people who are sworn to protect them. Riots have shut down entire cities, only reaching a boiling point after initial peaceful protests were ignored by the media as well as the majority of the country. Who better to take on this continuing fight to end racism and inequality than the group that helped bring it to the forefront with songs like “Fight the Power” and “911 Is a Joke”? Man Plans God Laughs is a continuation of their tirade against corruption and hatred, albeit an incredibly short one. The entire album clocks in at just under twenty seven minutes and each song ends almost abruptly, most of them falling in the two minute range. Despite the diminished running time, there is no lack of powerful admonishments and thought provoking lyrical jabs. Public Enemy may be getting older but they haven’t lost a single step.
Taking cues from the new generation of hip-hop by way of Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, there are some noticeable musical differences from the onset. “No Sympathy from the Devil” (one of two Rolling Stones influenced songs found on the album) starts off like an EDM track, slowly building before Chuck D jumps in with his signature choppy flow. It’s an interesting conflict of ideas since the lyrics confront the issue of ageism in rap music, as well as calling out younger rappers who spend too much time focusing on lyrical gymnastics instead of presenting a meaningful message. Chuck D explained their approach in this way: “It’s almost like that uncle sitting on the porch. He’s not going to be up there talking fast and all big winded. He’s not going to be screaming. He’s going to say three words that will get you to say, “Damn!”
The majority of the focus falls on social matters, dropping uncomfortable truth bombs like on “Mine Again” when Chuck D bellows: “So it’s cool to be black/Until it’s time to be black.” Or the heartbreaking opening of “Give Peace a Damn,” where a child asks his father to read him a bedtime story, only to hear, “Yeah, you gonna grow up and die,” in response. This heavy subject matter is nothing new for Public Enemy but it resonates louder in times of civil unrest. When you stop for a minute and think about the fact that they have been rapping about the same problems for over a quarter of a century, it makes any progress that’s been made seem inconsequential.
One of the most interesting tracks on the album is “Honky Tonk Rules,” a song that was intended for 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet. It samples the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” but they were unable to gain clearance for its use the first time around, despite the approval of Mick Jagger himself. Sheila Brody of Brides of Funkenstein lends her gravely, bluesy voice and it makes you wish the Stones had been able to use her for the original recording instead of the flat performance they coaxed out of Reparata and the Delrons. All these years later, Public Enemy is still working to bring the worlds of rock and hip hop together, once again achieving fantastic results.
Musically, Man Plans God Laughs is not going to be remembered as their greatest album. But that feels almost intentional; instead of trying to come up with the sickest beats they chose to make the lyrics the focal point of the whole record. The barrage of lambastings about the way of life for African-Americans and the continuing fight for racial equality are a necessary missive no matter how much certain factions might want us to think it’s not. It’s a plea for everyone to take off their blinders and look at the mess we’ve made of the human race and the lives that have been unnecessarily lost in the process. With a message like that, it’s no wonder the godfathers of hip-hop have remained public enemy number one.