By the Numbers: Fear of A Black Planet by Public Enemy

Fear_of_a_Black_PlanetI’ve been meaning to write about one of several songs from one of hip hop’s seminal albums and a big part of my introduction to rap that wasn’t on Top 40 radio.  I recently read a nice piece at Consequence of Sound that ranked all 20 songs on the album from “worst” to best.  You can see their ranking here, which also has links to each song.  I figured I’d do the same since I like to rank all the songs I’ve got in my iTunes library.  Using the one to five scale on iTunes and weighting based on song length, here’s my ranking.

20.  Track 19, Final Count of the Collision Between Us and Them (3 stars).  The shortest track on the album, this instrumental doesn’t pack the punch of some of the other instrumentals on the album.  A simple beat repeated for around 40 seconds winds down into a lone, receding snare.  A little of a laid back vibe to calm you down before you get to one of PE’s most political, fiery and tight songs.

19.  Track 15, Reggie Jax (3 stars).  CoS mentioned this as an homage to reggae.  I’d say more dub if you don’t put the reverb on the drums.  The slowness of the track, and Chuck D’s  matching delivery, is just out of place next to most of the other songs.  The shout out to Ice-T and Geto Boys at the end is also a bit strange given the type of laid back track this is.

18.  Track 4, Incident at 66.6 FM (3 stars).  PE’s version of the hip hop staple, filler “skit” tracks, is high art compared to most hip hop skit tracks and you know exactly where Ice Cube got the idea for some of his tracks on The Predator.  Taking pieces of a Chuck D interview with Alan Colmes, including callers both praising and lambasting the group.  The most ridiculous is a caller (presumably white) who saw them open for the Beastie Boys and complained about their stage show which included two men in uniform with uzis.  This is an odd criticism given the raunchy nature of the Beastie’s stage show at the time.  No song on the album, even the filler tracks (which is saying something), gets less than 3 stars from me.

17. Track 18, War at 33 1/3 (3 stars).  A testament more to the strength of most of the album’s other tracks than the quality of this one. A good beat with a synth (or is it a horn) sample that sounds like it’s being stretched like a rubber band and the usual staccato, brash raps of Chuck D, is not bad.  But it kind of loses a bit of steam in the breakdown and the song’s too short for that to happen.

16. Track 7, Pollywanacraka (3 stars).  Chuck D takes a look at interracial preferences from both the female and male perspectives doing a spoken word take that appears to be a strange homage to Gil Scott Heron.  Strange because the way he elongates syllables that has a lecherous effect.  Like Reggie Jax, the slowness of the track is a bit jarring and for some reason the sing-song “pollywanna” chorus gets on my nerves.

15. Track 17, B Side Wins Again (3 stars).  A guitar riff turns into a solid beat with an old school “clap your hands to the beat” call and some corresponding old school staple rhymes interspersed in Chuck D’s lyrics as well as plenty of Flavor Flav hyping.

14.  Track 12, Fear of A Black Planet (3 stars). “What’s wrong with some color in your family tree” is another song that looks at racial mixing and the concept of racial “purity” that does it better than Pollywanacraka.  Shows off vintage collage soundmaking of The Bomb Squad.

13. Track 6, Meet the G That Killed Me (4 stars).  At only 45 seconds, it’s a bit of a throwaway and the rather outdated view of homosexuality expressed in Chuck D’s first line is regrettable.  The clanging beat and funky bassline make up for it.

12. Track 1, Contract on the World Love Jam (4 stars). Whereas their first album started with the roar of a crowd and an airhorn, the first track on Fear starts off with something rare on a PE album, silence.  And then a solitary guitar that sounds like something that might start off a Pink Floyd album.  Then, you’re in a PE jam.  Bumping beat, screeching sound effects, and sound snippets.  A solid opening track.

11. Track 16, Leave This Off Your Fuckin’ Charts (4 stars).  Give the DJ some.  Terminator X gets a chance to show off his scratchin’ skills tied around several samples including the perfect lyric for a DJ “who needs a band when the beat just goes/shows”.

10.  Track 14, Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man (4 stars).  The Bomb Squad shows off its versatility with basically a house track with a little funk thrown into it that seems to work perfectly with Flava Flav’s less political leaning rhymes and they abide by Flava’s exhortations to “rock that shit homey”.  A great mid-song breakdown as well.

9. Track 8, Anti-Nigger Machine (4 stars).  This track shows off the confidence PE had.  I don’t know of many hip hop tracks that do a solid instrumental track for about 2 minutes and then drop a mad Chuck D verse on you that throws in sirens, a reggae sample and the introduction to the next song in the next minute and a half.

8. Track 3, 911 Is a Joke (4 stars).  Other than Fight The Power, the most recognizable song from the album  and I’ll admit it’s got a classic video.  But we’re just judging songs here and for some reason this song never resonated for me as much as some others on the album.  Like his other track, the beat Flava Flav gets has a party vibe, but the subject matter here is deadly serious.  An indictment of NYC’s 911 service, from the perspective of his community, with some witty takedowns of the EMS (“i call em bodysnatchers/cause they come to fetch ya/with an autopsy ambulance just to dissect ya”).  But for some reason the chorus falls flat for me, which is why it’s probably lower than most people would rate this song.

7. Track 10, Power To the  People (4 stars).  A classical piano flourish and then Chuck D yells “and you thought the beat slowed down” and well, it certainly doesn’t.  One of the fastest tracks on the album and Chuck D’s chant of “power to the people” and “turn it up, turn it loose” are exhortations for revolution.  And kind of like Track 8 in reverse, the last minute is a instrumental breakdown with clipped Flava Flav vocal samples.

6. Track 13, Revolutionary Generation (4 stars).  There’s so much going on in this beat and the fact that it can’t crack the top 5 is truly a testament to the sonic tapestries woven in this album.  So, just a few of the samples in this song: Parliament, Run DMC, Musical Youth, Diana Ross, and Double Dee and Steinski.  A call to “soul sisters” to join the fight and calling out the disrespect experienced by them.

5. Track 9, Burn Hollywood Burn (5 stars).  Two hot guest verses from rap luminaries that keep up with Chuck D, a hook that I irrationally love, and a seething anger palpable even for PE.  Even the outro’s comedy hits home when it’s announced the film the four rappers have in store at the theater is “Driving Miss Daisy”.  There is some irony in Ice Cube’s parting “fuck Hollywood” given some of his roles in mainstream Hollywood, but I have no doubt at the time it was genuine.

4. Track 11, Who Stole The Soul? (5 stars).  A good bit of soul samples (Sly and The Family Stone, James Brown) is apt given the title and the beat drops a few elements to let Chuck D’s lyrics take center stage and then when the chorus comes back it builds back up.  The Bomb Squad sneaks in a Beatles sample (intentional for sure given the subject matter of the song) and even sample themselves (Bring The Noise).  Flava Flav hits his hype notes just right and Chuck D has some great lines like “Like I want to know who/Picked Wilson’s pocket” and “Over here they’ll go after ya to steal your soul/like over there they stole our gold.”

3. Track 5, Welcome To the Terrordome (5 stars). The top 3 songs in this album are the pillars on which the rest of the album hangs and on any given day I might flip flop on my rankings of these tracks. A sample stating “this is a journey…” is a good description of this song; there’s so much to unpack both musically and lyrically. Similar to Fight the Power, the beat pulsates like a living organism with the chorus adding vocal snippets and various guitar stabs and other noises fitting lockstep with the groove. Chuck effortlessly spits lines like “I rope-a-dope the evil/with righteous bobbing and weaving/and let the good get even/c’mon down/but welcome to the terror dome”. And another example of not following convention, the break between Chuck’s second and third verse is almost instantaneous, and not nearly as musically diverse as the bridge between verses 1 and 2. Maybe Chuck said, I’ve got more to say and I’m not waiting for another bridge.

2. Track 20, Fight the Power (5 stars). No argument from me that this isn’t the most culturally important song from the album, and probably in all PE’s catalog, with its iconic video and placement in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Out of the top 3 tracks, it’s the simplest beat. Like I mentioned above, the beat pulsates out of your stereo like a bell ringing and echoing into the atmosphere. You know the chorus and you know the takedowns of Elvis and John Wayne too. Flava Flav is on his A-game, throwing in exclamation points to Chuck’s already pointed rhymes. And then the Bomb Squad take you out on some funky stuff, punctuated with a question about the future of Public Enemy, which is left unanswered in a cut-off quote from Chuck D.

1. Track 2, Brothers Gonna Work It Out (5 stars). It’s the hardest beat on the album, that guitar squabble in the background of the beat works so well and the chorus is even stronger than Fight The Power, in my opinion. That’s why I give this the slightest edge as the best song on this iconic album. It encapsulates everything that PE did so well and it doesn’t let up until it suddenly ends and the next track starts.  Don’t think I need to say any more, here’s the video:

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One Response to “By the Numbers: Fear of A Black Planet by Public Enemy”

  1. By The Numbers: Purple Rain by Prince | Nothing to Write Home About Says:

    […] did this a few months ago and it seemed like an appropriate time to take back a look at Prince’s 1984 classic, Purple […]

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