Thirty years. That’s ancient speak for a lot of fans whose first introduction to Hip Hop could have been anywhere between Mike Jones’ (who?) “Still Tippin,” Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter II or anything swag-related. When Public Enemy first dropped Yo! Bum Rush the Show! in 1987 with outstanding production by The Bomb Squad and Rick Rubin, the group immediately distanced themselves from the fray with dynamic songs about politics, the issues plaguing Black America and virtually every other societal ill under the sun. Years later, multiple publications (and the coveted Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) would rank the Long Island crew amongst the greatest acts of all time thanks to perennial classics like “Don’t Believe the Hype” and “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” from the landmark release It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and their third release, Fear of a Black Planet, propelled them to even further heights.
Three decades after their no-hold punches debut, Chuck D, Flava Flav, and company are back with Nothing is Quick in the Desert (Except Death). Naturally, the album is essentially everything you would expect from a Public Enemy album — ferocious, socially conscious lyrics, Flava Flav’s hype beasting, and heavy rock-laden instrumentals. Chuck D proves his fiery raps have aged well over time on the brief intro and title track, spitting: “Digitize the present, download it in a minute/The future is now, ‘cause ain’t no frontin’ in it.” In a climate that typically prefers metaphors and witty punchlines, Chuck D’s plainspoken style may be sort of an eardrum aberration for newcomers. He sounds absolutely entrenched on the rapid-fire drums of “sPEak!” as he equates free, unadulterated speech as the ultimate weapon against all manner of the world’s evils.
Public Enemy are well acquainted with their lane as rap music’s heralded social provocateurs, and even though it has been thirty years since their debut, they don’t get verbally gun-shy when speaking their minds on contemporary matters. Even though they risk being dismissed as cultural dinosaurs to younger listeners by speaking on new age trends, they nonetheless always maintain a disposition of not giving a fuck. The truth is that the group has always been critical of mainstream fads. On “Yesterday Man” they throw not-so-subtle jabs at Kanye and Kim’s celebrity, the Olympian formerly known as Bruce Jenner’s tabloid-fueled transformation to a woman, and Andre 3000 for abandoning the studio. The volume is turned up to the ninth degree on “Smash the Crowd,” where the group does more chest-beating about their astuteness as a squad as opposed to beating up on topical subjects.
For someone set to kick 60’s door in, Chuck D has a visceral, youthful vigor throughout the album. He is charged and in rare form on “So Be It,” unleashing one of his best verbal lashings of the last decade. The heavy metal beat consummately suits his vehement poetics, but the following track “SOC MED Digital Heroin” is the real gem of the album. As the title indicates, Chuck D criticizes the youth’s dependence on social media and blames it for creating an overall lazy society. “Toxic” elegantly fuses old-school Hip Hop stabs with punk rock leanings, not to mention Chuck D’s tried and true formula of provoking the masses: “If a mule die they used to say, ‘buy another one/ If a nigga die they used to say, ‘try another one.” Although polemical lines like these are littered throughout the album, it’s mildly disappointing that Chuck D glosses over or completely ignores a host of pressing societal issues. Vague references to Donald Trump’s presidency and wars raging in the Middle East are frankly too kosher for a band of this pedigree. It’s perhaps unfair to demand the crew to assume the title of socially conscious champions of all earthly concerns, but it’s a slight letdown not hearing Chuck D’s focused thoughts on some matters of grave importance.
Still, Nothing is Quick in the Desert as a whole repeatedly substantiates the widespread belief that Public Enemy is one of the greatest groups of all time. According to Chuck D, “Nothing Is Quick In The Desert’ is a saying I use when the average person looks at the record industry. It looks dead like a desert. But there’s plenty of life in the desert when one is educated on what they see and hear.” Celebrating their 30th anniversary, there’s still plenty of life in the elder statesmen who once started a musical revolution. And from that viewpoint, the group closes out the album by celebrating some of the Hip Hop greats who have physically passed but whose music lives on forever in “Rest In Beats (Part 1 & 2).” Quicksand can’t compete.