Public Enemy - Nothing is Quick in the Desert (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

Public Enemy

Nothing is Quick in the Desert (2017)


A lot of times, when a musical artist has achieved legendary status, there’s a tendency for fans to forget that the band is still alive and kicking and making music. Why pick up the new Public Enemy album when you can just listen to Fear of a Black Planet all over again? The problem is that people miss out on all the quality work that Public Enemy has put forward from 2000 onwards. The elephant in the room that nobody talks about is that Chuck D. wasn’t a very good rapper in Public Enemy’s heyday, but he was intelligent and had a lot of important things to say, so everyone forgave him for the fact that the rhymes he communicated his ideas through were basic, simplistic, and inelegant. But it’s been 30 years since Public Enemy’s debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, and Chuck has been doing a lot of growing as a lyricist since then, so on 2017’s Nothing is Quick in the Desert, Chuck is at his lyrical height, even if the concepts for some of the songs are questionable.

Perhaps because of Chuck D.’s time fronting Prophets of Rage, one of the distinguishing features of Nothing is Quick in the Desert is a furious metal guitar throughout almost all of the album, adding a distinct rock vibe that underscores the fury of Chuck D.’s lyrics. My initial theory was that the guitarist was Tom Morello, but as hard as I search the web, I can’t find any evidence to support my theory. It seems more likely that it’s recurring Public Enemy guitarist Khari Wynn, not to be confused with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine villain, Kai Winn. The guitar combines perfectly with DJ Lord who, once again, reminds us that he lives in the shadow of no Terminator.

The song title “Yesterday Man” calls to mind the Beatles “Nowhere Man,” which is probably no coincidence considering how big of a Beatles fan Chuck D. is. The song is nearly perfect sonically, starting out with the unusual combination of piano, bongos, and turntables, before launching into some of that furious guitar with just the right amount of reverb on the vocals. But then the lyrics have a few strange moments. A guest rapper (none of the guest stars are mentioned on the track listing, or the Bandcamp page where they dropped the album as a surprise on June 29th, and there’s only one rapper on the album I can recognize by voice) lists off some current events as Flavor Flav calls back with “What happened?” One of the events listed is “Bruce Jenner turning femme.” It’s hard to tell if this is supposed to be judgmental or neutral based on the other events mentioned, which seem to be all over the place in whether they’re good, bad, or neither. Still, it feels like a transphobic reference, and even if it wasn’t intended to be judgmental, it’s considered a big insult to refer to a trans person by their deadname instead of their preferred name. Don’t get me wrong, Caitlyn Jenner is terrible, but her name is not Bruce. Funnily, though, one of the current events mentioned is “Rappers all doin’ TV” as the star of Flavor of Love continues to play hype man, and Ice-T shows up on the album a few tracks later.

“Beat Them All” and its reprise “If You Can’t Join Em Beat Em” are a pretty potent political anthem for the modern age. And let’s be honest, doesn’t “If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em” work a lot better than the traditional phrase? “So Be It” is a call to activism that stands as one of the strongest songs on the entire album. Then we get “SOC MED Digital Heroin,” a song complaining about the evils of social media. I never understand the point of songs like this, because you know the same music is going to turn around and be promoted on social media or, you know, Bandcamp. The other problem with songs like this complaining about the dangers of technology is that they fall into the fallacy of technological determinism, whereby the technology, and not the people using that technology, is blamed for shaping society.

“Terrorwrist” is a song about terrorism that that fails to ever justify its punny title beyond the fact that Chuck D. seems to like saying the world “terrorist” with an emphasis on the second syllable. The song closes out on a clip of George W. Bush giving a speech trying to justify the War on Terror, which seems rather silly to be going after someone who was the President two administrations ago. But then in “Toxic,” we finally get what we’ve been waiting for: Chuck D. going after Donald Trump, who he refuses to call by name and refers to only as “45.” “Toxic” is about, not just Trump, but the toxic, commercial, marketing culture that markets ridiculous characters, and of which Trump’s presidency is the ultimate result. “Smells Like Teens Hear It” is about the generational gap between hip-hop fans, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what he’s actually trying to say about that gap.

The album then closes out with “Rest in Beats (Parts 1 & 2),” a tribute song to deceased rappers. The problem with these kinds of songs is that they’re just a list of names, and hold more interest for the artist than for the listener, and are certainly not strong enough for an album closer, although I do give them credit for including underground indie-rapper Eyedea, as well as Prodigy who died mere weeks before the album’s release. But then in the middle of the song, Chuck D. switches from listing people to listing dead things like brick and mortar record stores and “real flows,” which, when placed side by side with actual dead individuals as if people and things are equal, just comes off as wildly disrespectful.

Even if some of the songs are poorly thought out, sonically it’s a killer album. Khari Wynn’s guitar and DJ Lord’s turntables are mindblowing throughout. Flavor Flav, whose attempts at a solo career have always tanked, is left in the hype man position where he belongs, with very few turns at lead vocals. And when he does take front and center for a few brief seconds, it’s actually pretty good. And Chuck D. is dominating, booming, powerful, and eloquent in his rhymes. For all the missteps, Nothing is Quick in the Desert is definitely worth listening to.