28 years after the release of Public Enemy‘s 1987 debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show on Def Jam, the seminal rap group releases Man Plan God Laughs via their own label, Enemy Records. Despite the band’s reputation — virtually everyone is familiar with them, or has at least heard of them — they never had a #1 album (or a #2 or #3 album either), and not one of their albums has been awarded more than a platinum certification from the RIAA. Singles-wise, they have been even less of a mainstream public concern — just two songs of theirs have found their way onto the Billboard Hot 100 over the course of their entire career. Of course, commercialism has never really been the point for Public Enemy; they use their music for activism purposes instead. When I was a student at the University of Miami 7-8 years ago, PE rapper Chuck D gave a guest lecture on, er, rap slavery. I didn’t see the flyer for it until the day after he was there (I think he spoke at the business school), otherwise I would have attended it to see what he had to say.
It wasn’t until just now that I realized that Public Enemy is the only rap act from the 1980s to have had a sustained career that has lasted all the way until today. Ever since the Beastie Boys‘ Adam “MCA” Yauch’s death from cancer in 2012, Public Enemy has been the last rap group — or rap act, period — standing from the period. It wasn’t uncommon for rappers and rap groups during hip-hop’s late-’80s/early-’90s golden age to shine brightly for just an album — look at N.W.A and their 1988 album Straight Outta Compton — before disintegrating or disappearing completely, but the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy proved to be the exception. Both were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — becoming the third and fourth rap acts to receive the honor after Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in 2007 and Run-D.M.C. in 2009; N.W.A will be the fifth in 2016 — in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
Man Plans God Laughs is not a great album, but for an album by a three-decade-old rap group — Chuck D is a staggering 55 years old — it’s certainly will do. In fact, it’s borderline very good, with several tracks — such as the opening “No Sympathy from the Devil” and the closing “Praise the Loud” — hitting with surprising force and a few others like “Honky Tonk Rules” displaying the group’s continued willingness to pick apart classics from before their time in the same way they repurposed “For What It’s Worth” into “He Got Game” nearly twenty years ago. The music here is just plain fun, skillfully handled and presented by just two members — Chuck D and Gary G-Wiz — of PE’s legendary Bomb Squad production team responsible for not just all of Public Enemy’s classic albums (including 1988‘s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back), but also other classic hip-hop records like Ice Cube’s 1990 debut AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.
The production here is dialed back — samples are expensive to clear nowadays, so this is to be expected since Public Enemy doesn’t have the backing of a major label — but most crucially, so is the album’s duration. In an age where seemingly every rap album runs 20 tracks and 80 minutes, Man Plans God Laughs is only 11 tracks — with no skits — and 28 minutes in length. While not all of the songs are as good as the tracks I already mentioned, this is an album that begs to be played again as soon as it’s over, and for rappers in their mid-fifties — seriously, how many people in their mid-fifties claim “rapper” as their job description? — this is no small achievement. If you find any enjoyment at all in the music called rap, you will have a lot of fun with this record.