As just about the entire Western world must know by now, Public Enemy are those unspeakable anti-Semitic rappers. Or are they? A phrase from their last album comes to mind: ”Don’t believe the hype.” Nearly a year ago, one member of the group — Professor Griff, then the band’s ”Minister of Information” (Public Enemy has a weakness for pomp and circumstance) — gave an interview in which he called Jews the source of all the world’s evil. That was anti-Semitic, no doubt about it. Griff was fired from Public Enemy, then reinstated; in the ongoing uproar it appeared that the leader of the group, Chuck D, had trouble admitting his band could have done anything wrong.
Griff is out of Public Enemy again (though he was in the group while this new album was recorded). But he told Spin magazine that he now has studied Jewish history, and learned — as a member of another historically oppressed group — to identify with the suffering of Jews.
Griff’s repentance might have eased Public Enemy’s problem with anti-Semitism, but in a cut from the album that was released in December, ”Welcome to the Terrordome,” Chuck D rapped lyrics that ignited the controversy all over again: ”Crucifixion ain’t no fiction/so-called chosen frozen/apology made to whoever pleases/still they got me like Jesus.” Was Chuck D blaming Jews for crucifying him — just as, through much of European history, they were blamed for crucifying Christ? He said he meant he was crucified by the media, though it’s still striking that he compared himself to Jesus at all, and that he hit back so imperiously after a member of his group did something so wrong.
So what’s on Public Enemy’s new album? Language that’s strong and elusive, often fragmentary. Embedded in that language are critical, sometimes brutal thoughts about contemporary black life and the state of race relations.
Some people might disagree with some of these ideas. They might listen to a song called ”Burn Hollywood Burn” and insist (though I don’t see how they could) that movies have in fact portrayed blacks fairly. They could listen to ”Pollywanacraka” and say that no, there is nothing wrong with blacks leaving their community to marry upscale whites.
Or they might argue with Chuck D’s fleeting contention that whites are descended from blacks, and wonder whether he means blacks are by nature more pure, or whether he’s just throwing the idea in the face of racists who believe that whites are superior. But it’s hard to dispute the lyrics’ assertion that many whites are afraid of blacks.
The music demonstrates once again why Public Enemy is widely considered to be the most powerful rap group. It rages at you with hurricane force, dancing and drilling with a grinding industrial undertone that might suggest even the machines of the world were rising in revolt. But at the same time it stitches voices together to give the impression of a vast community, sometimes broken into lively individuals, sometimes massed, fists in the air, to demand change. There’s nothing in pop music quite like it. It sounds like a partly African, partly postmodern collage, stitched together on tumultuous urban streets.
But still it’s less explosive than the music on Public Enemy’s last two albums; it seems more settled, even more mature. Too bad, then, that the album as a whole isn’t more focused. Its title, Fear of a Black Planet, is wonderfully potent, especially in an age when whites understand that they’re a minority in the world, and will be even in the United States in the 21st century. But the album doesn’t explore that idea; instead it just touches on it, then jumps away to something else.
Toward the end even the music grows routine. The final cut, ”Fight the Power” — the insurgent theme song of Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing, and perhaps the strongest pop single of 1989 — ought to finish the album in a blaze of excitement. But because the songs that come just before don’t build up to it, the end of the album sounds weaker than it should.
Fear of a Black Planet isn’t Public Enemy’s masterpiece. But it’s a formidable piece of work, and the one pop album released so far this year that no one interested in the current state of American culture can afford to ignore.
A postscript: After I’d written this review, Harry Allen, who describes himself as Public Enemy’s ”director of enemy relations,” sent me an astonishing 1970 tract that, he says, ”should be seen as some of the inspiration for Fear of a Black Planet. In it, Frances Welsing, a Washington, D.C., psychiatrist, argues that whites are genetically deficient because their skin isn’t colored, and that they compensate for this deficiency by oppressing blacks and other darker-skinned peoples. If Allen truly speaks for Public Enemy, then Chuck D has carried his rage against white supremacy to the point of thinking that whites are inferior (or perhaps even, as Welsing says, diseased). Taken by itself, Fear of a Black Planet is not a racist album. But a miserable new chapter now may have opened in the Public Enemy story. If the group does advocate Welsing’s arguments, I emphatically withdraw my support.