It’s difficult not to read anything into hip-hop legends Public Enemy announcing that their 14th full-length, Nothing Is Quick in the Desert, would drop on the Fourth of July. After all, this is the same group that started their classic ’88 cut “Louder Than a Bomb” with a Flavor Flav preamble reminiscent of Frederick Douglass: “Picture us cooling out on the Fourth of July/ And if you heard we were celebrating, that’s a worldwide lie.” Even when the album surfaced a few days early for free on Bandcamp, the group’s long history pointed more towards springing a rebellion too hot to be left cooling on some hard drive than, as frontman Chuck D indicated, a 30th anniversary gift to fans. All these years later, it’s still tough to shake the memories of when purchasing a Public Enemy record felt like a defiant act, a strategic protest, and a revolution unfolding at 33 1/3 revolutions.
After more than a dozen records and, by Chuck D’s count, 106 tours across 105 countries, it’d be fatuous to deny that PE have remained in “full effect” over three decades as a group. However, it’d be equally disingenuous to suggest that the senior circuit crew have had zero trouble delivering their old-school message in our current “mess-age.” Despite jams like the ’07 horns-blaring throwback “Harder Than You Think” and the most compelling material off 2012’s companion albums, Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp and The Evil Empire of Everything, which pitted PE as voices of wisdom in a post-Travon Martin America, there have also been times in recent years where the PSA no longer kicked like a party, the posse felt outsourced, and the sounds of a funky drummer, well, just weren’t funky enough. So, two years after the stunted, mumbled, and glitchy Man Plans God Laughs dropped and disappointed, one of the few original ‘80s hip-hop acts that never went away find themselves ironically in position for a comeback.
And fans of classic Public Enemy will appreciate that when the digital needle drops on Nothing Is Quick in the Desert, out of one corner comes hard-rhyming Chuck D booming right hooks on the title intro as rubber-legged hypeman Flavor Flav bobs and weaves around him while delivering jabs atop menacing beats, disintegrating percussion, and old-school scratches for the quick knockout. Likewise, “sPEak!” bucks hard alongside Chuck’s megaphone vocals, horns thumping and fist-pumping choruses chanting until the track dissolves into guitarist Khari Wynn’s final serpentining breakdown. It’s abrasive, bumping, and, for the first time in a couple records, a reminder that Public Enemy, at their best, sound like a block party intermingling with a street protest. That classic PE feel comes across all the stronger through details like spoken-word snippets and samples, Chuck D’s critical puns (“Sells Like Teens Hear It”), and the chorus of “Beat Them” (“If you can’t join ‘em/ Know you’ve got to beat ‘em”), which resurfaces later on in the record just as chants get recycled at protest rallies.
While Chuck D has explained that the album’s title refers to fresh hip-hop creativity germinating even when the rap game seems like a barren wasteland, that thesis just as easily applies to staying awake and alert while one’s country slumbers through a morally bankrupt nightmare. Though Chuck only alludes to Trump a couple times (“Looks like 45 done lied again/ Grabbin’ planets, territories, not to mention women” on “Toxic”), Nothing Is Quick raises several responses to the album’s central question: “Can culture save humanity when the name of the game is narcissism?” The non-adjacent triumvirate of “sPEak!”, “So Be It”, and “Toxic” act as rallying cries for these ominous times, the first mobilizing people to get involved (“World ain’t gonna fix itself”), the second asking listeners to become individual agents of change (“Let ‘It’ be whatever you believe in/ It can’t stop, won’t stop, not a one-size fit/ Whatever you want in the world, start by being It”), and the third speculating on how culture, art, and love can scrub clean a toxic nation. Most PE albums can be viewed as calls to action, but never has that action been more left up to listeners. In 2017, the only crime seems to be complacency.
Public Enemy’s message hits hardest when the lyrics remain open for listeners to step inside. A couple presidential putdowns are enough (no need for another “Son of a Bush”), and the small handful of times the album stumbles are when the focus narrows to micro grievances like calling out Kanye and Kim for being “a spectacle instead of spectacular” (“Yesterday Man”) or pointing out the negative effects of social media on millennials (“SOC MED Digital Heroin”). Even if these issues warrant discussion, the album’s hardest-hitting cuts remind us that there are no lack of grave powers to fight at present. And for the first time in five years, Public Enemy sound truly down for that fight. Yeah … boyeeeee.
Essential Tracks: “sPEak!”, “So Be It”, and “Toxic”