Pioneering hip-hop legends Public Enemy always could divide opinion. Back in 1990, at the height of their popularity, they celebrated this fact on their third album, Fear of a Black Planet. The track Incident At 66.6 FM, which samples a radio phone-in during which the presenter cheerfully laughs off one caller who invites the band to “go back to Africa” while another refers to their fans as “scum”.
Nearly three decades on from that, they’re the uber-influential elder statesmen of rap, continuing to inspire musicians working across genres. Their material is considered uplifting enough to be chosen as theme music for British Paralympic coverage, they’re well enough established to have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and they’re popular enough to have sold millions of records worldwide.
Doesn’t mean everyone likes them though. Opinion is still divided, as these ruminative and considered one-star Amazon reviews show.
“dull, dreary, repetitive dribble”
That’s the title an anonymous UK reviewer give to his/her review of PE’s debut, Yo! Bum Rush the Show. This seems pretty decisive, but he/she immediately gets oxymoronic:
“Never have i had to endure such a droll album.”
So either they don’t like their albums amusing or entertaining, or they don’t know what droll means. Undaunted, they go on to fall back on their maturity to emphasise their credibility:
“at 29 yrs old i really am past this rubbish with a more mature ear able to appreciate a far greater spectrum of contempary [sic] sounds”
Ooh, so close to pulling it back there. Drat! RH has better luck using good old-fashioned sarcasm and irrelevant references:
“Why have I been wasting my time listening to Charlie Parker and Claude Debussy all these years? What ever made me think that Aretha Franklin and Gundula Janowitz could actually sing? I must have been high. THIS is the great work of true musical genius that all mankind has been waiting for.”
Gunula Janowitz, as we all know without resorting to Google, is one of the highest regarded opera singers of all time. RH is on safe ground suggesting that she (and Aretha) can sing, so that proves Public Enemy are shit.
VV is another grown-up who disapproves of PE. Admittedly, his 2003 review of It Takes a Nation of Millions… gets off to a dodgy start with the title, “You call this music? Maybe on Planet Suck-ville”, which could have been written by six-year old, but VV soon more than redeems himself. He takes maturity to new levels with this statement:
“Bashing the government is not cool, I don’t think George Bush is listening to this record right now. And if our president can’t listen to it, who should be allowed to? Certainly not you.”
No, you’re right, VV, bashing the government is not cool. Conformity, compliance and respect for authority are what’s cool. That real rock and roll. What was Chuck D thinking of? Leave that nice Mr Bush alone. And he’s not even listening anyway, so there!
At the other end of the maturity spectrum is J, reviewing Fear of a Black Planet in 2010. He’s just desperate to hear naughty words being uttered:
“Funny that there’s an advisory label on the cover but they beep out the cuss words on Fight the Power. Wish I knew this before I bought the CD.”
He feels so cheated he awards the album the lowest, one-star rating. J would appreciate HJ’s review and the way it cleverly hints at a swear word:
“Anybody who likes this type of music should see a psychiatrist… when they called it rap they left off the C”
See what he did there? Not everyone goes to the trouble of using such ingenious wordplay in their negative reviews. KR just says Public Enemy are “Not a patch on NWA. Lyrically or musically”, an anonymous Nation of Millions reviewer in 1999 says it’s “just plain bland” and MS went full street in 2005:
“This album is WACK and BORING! BORING! BORING! BORRRRRING!”
At least KR got his point across with his crazy urban slang. Not everyone manages that trick. Here’s TA‘s review of Black Planet in its confusing entirety:
“Head Cruncher by TA, February 15, 2005
“I wish I could put into words the disdain I have for RAP. But I can’t so all you get is the title. Music????? Don’t make me laugh.”
“All you get is the title” – Does anybody have any idea what that means? And what about the last bit? “Music????? Don’t make me laugh.” Maybe TA finds it all a bit too droll as well? Maybe they should take a leaf out of that 29 year-old anonymous UK reviewer from earlier and try something else from the “spectrum of contempary sounds”
Finally, here are two conflicting but equally scornful reviews of PE’s peak output. First up, DW on Nation of Millions:
“Let’s not beat about the bush. This album is a pile of tripe. Some prat with a silly watch and some other guy are angry and shout a lot instead of inspiring people to change things for the better. Maybe I’m too white and middle class to get what they are trying to say but whatever my social and economic background I just couldn’t find any redeeming qualities in this album.”
While AKR says, of Black Planet:
“The irony being that P.E.’s core audience were white suburban kids (remember John Connor from Terminator 2?), not angry urban black youths.”
Now I don’t know who to believe here – DK or AKR. Sure, you have to admire DW’s withering description of Flavor Flav as “some prat with a silly watch”, but AKR has cold hard facts on his side; young John Connor from Terminator 2 was a white kid and he did wear a Public Enemy t-shirt. You just can’t argue with that. And that means Public Enemy are sell-outs! Don’t believe the hype!