Public Enemy - Fear of a Black Planet

by Jim Harris Rating:7.5 Release Date:2014-12-08

With stronger beats and lengthy funky jams, Public Enemy followed up two atomic bombs dropped on the music world in the form of their two first albums with, well, an elaborate fireworks display. Where their previous album, Millions, was an apocalyptic exercise in epic scratches and hip-hop madness wrapped around evocative essays on the state of black American angst and anger, the comic book covered Fear of a Black Planet showed the band moving more towards Grandmaster Flash than Tupac.

Like so many rappers and musicians in general, with popularity and fame, come the inevitable focus on what distracts most famous people: themselves. “I’m Flavor Flav and you’re not...” Sigh.

The cover indeed is more comic book and tried to evoke a cheap Hollywood movie opening, as opposed to the ominous behind bars depiction on their previous album. The themes and topics these fairly typical beats are filled with seem a bit dated and less universal in retrospect and more Hollywood as well.

'Burn Hollywood Burn' attacks the universal theme of Black Exploitation films and the fact that it was hard for such luminaries as Spike Lee to get the funding white directors did. Oh, poor babies. The phrase could easily, here in this decade, be a battle cry for the far right.

At the time, the 911 song and refrain had some impact, but in a day and age such as now, many Mexican immigrants joke about the only time they call 911 is when they are about to die, and what do they say? Mis paseos aquí (My ride’s Here…) This song seems less evocative in this day and age. 

Even Public Enemy’s persistent addressing of racial mixing on a few songs here seems a bit yesterday and now, in retrospect, falls into the same explosive territory as Michael Jackson singing, “The child is white/ The child is black…” After Fear of a Black Planet, I believed this band would grow in popularity, shrink in social impact and thus, political impact.

The remixes of ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’ and others here on this re-release show the band musically getting into more traditional jamming with repetitive drums and echoey repetitive vocals, but, with the exception of their greatest song of all time, ‘Fight the Power’, most of the remixes and rambling dialogue-driven tracks are undercut with more funk than hip-hop, and that puts the sum total of Fear of a Black Planet a clear notch below their previous two albums But if you enjoy a more studio-manipulated, funky, rock 'n' roll vibe that is still hip-hop enough, Fear of a Black Planet just might be worth investing in.

And while the hip-hop world would take a few decades to evolve into the politics of pussy and deviate from the politics of racial and social injustices, Flavor Flav would branch off into reality TV and Chuck D would sell his powerful voice to the Soundtrack of Grand Theft Auto. The fate of change agents in a fucked up world, I suppose.

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