There couldn’t be a more relevant time for Public Enemy to return when the question of race looms large in America and what it means to be black in a country in a world post the fatal shooting of Michael Brown due to police brutality and the civil unrest that has occurred in Ferguson consequently.
The album begins with No Sympathy for the Devil, a song in dialogue with the Rolling Stones song whilst also acting as a criticism to Obama of the people he got in bed with when he became president. The song questions just how much power a black president can have in the White House.
“Didn’t you see this coming?/The great satan, a global terrorist/Didn’t you see the smoke?”
The price for power is to become a puppet for the ambitions of white hegemony and to become powerless, a figurehead who can’t see they’re sitting on a bonfire until they smell their feet burning. It also acts as a criticism of America, and how far the country has fallen from the American Dream of freedom and prosperity for all. Me to We is a song about reclaiming that dream, with the constant refrain of “we the people” referring to The Preamble to the United States Constitution. The song is one about working towards rebuilding the spirit of the Constitution and making an America that has previously only existed in dreams a reality.
Earthizen is an explosive track that acts as a mnemonic, running from A-Z, and is quite possibly the strongest track of the whole album, and probably the strongest use of the mnemonic as a song since IRAQ by Flobots.
Q – Question is it right or is it wrong?
R – Right on, listen to the song
S – Sacrifice for the team
T – Time to make something mean
U – Means we under arrest
V – Victims of the system stress
W – We instead of me the narrative
The song questions black identity in a narrative defined by white men, and the sacrifices inherent in having your racial identity and your destiny under control by someone else. It says that America is a broken system, and that the victims of that system are black lives and liberty, and that it’s only by everyone working together and changing the narrative from one of selfishness to one of selflessness can the country truly get better.
In summation, whilst it’s not Public Enemy’s strongest album (there’s a few duff tracks in there like Honky Talk Rules, Praise the Loud, and Lost in Space that just didn’t work for me) they still know how to bring it and produce powerful, resonant songs and protest rap at a time when we really need to hear it. In a post-Ferguson world America needs Public Enemy to amplify the voices of the disenfranchised and the betrayed - to remind us the American Dream isn't a reality for all, but that it can be.
Monthly music columnist for the Kirkby Extra, sometimes article writer for Get Into This. Freelance writer/artist/maker.