Is "Man Plans God Laughs" deserving of Public Enemy's Hall of Fame title?
I want to like the new Public Enemy record. I really do.
When news first broke less than a month ago that the legendary New York rap act who gave us timeless tracks like "Fight the Power" and "Welcome to the Terror Dome" would be making a record once more, I was elated. Sure, the 2000's thus far have been hit or miss for Chuck D and company. However, in light of the turmoil in the African American community (a large topic, if not the only topic, of conversation in P.E.'s music) and their recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I figured there would be some inspired content on Man Plans God Laughs.
I wasn't wrong, per say. Chuck D delivered on his promises to address the sociopolitical goings-ons on Man Plans God Laughs. He does it on every track and keeps his trademark resonant baritone barking rallying cries with familiar dexterity. Also lyrically, the man can still go. While you're not going to get the sort of simile-centric wordplay like you might get from modern emcees, you will get emphatic and thought provoking bars to nosh on as you speed through MPGL ("But what good is my hood when God say it's no good? It's no good when it's no God").
The thing is with Man Plans God Laughs, is that current events weren't the only inspiration. So, too, were Kanye West's Yeezus, Kendrick Lamar and Run the Jewels. And while the fact that Public Enemy - a forefather of Hip-Hop in their own right - can be mused by this generation's crop of rappers is an indicator of the healthy state of the genre, the traces of this kind of inspiration are what muddies MPGL.
Through much of the album, nostalgia is almost reached using simple and retro snare on beats, but the attempts to modernize are unsuccessful and mostly just feel like vacant overproduction. Results are often headache-y and cloud the everlasting quality of Chuck D and his lyrical ability. This occurs most apparently in tracks like "Give Peace a Damn," and "Lost in Space Music" whose hearts are in the right place, yet they both fall so flat with incessant buzz noises, you want to suck your teeth with that referral shame usually reserved for spotting a middle-aged person at the club.
In an interview with Maxim, Chuck D said that the idea behind Man Plans God Laughs was to make "a comment about the 21st century in this technological yet still political world." There are a handful of efforts mostly in the last leg of the record that shows that this idea was, at its core, a good one. "Corporateplantationopoly" is a song that could be successful in any decade Public Enemy has been active in, and is thus a welcome addition to Man Plans God Laughs. "Mine Again" and "Those Who Know Who" are right in the wheelhouse of this political binary inspiration, and for the most part are able to knock it out of the park.
Part of the issue with Man Plans God Laughs is that these songs don't surpass three minutes - ever - and so even when the music feels quality, the bridge is always burning behind you as you cross it. What should feel like a victory lap as MPGL is ending, feels like a mad dash to the finish - a fast and furious attempt to go out strong to compensate for a false start. Both the good and the bad of Man Plans God Laughs are equally fleeting. The listener isn't given the time to have a nostalgia trip and they're not offered anything very groundbreaking, either.
The merit of the socially conscious rapper is at an arguable all time high. Public schools are turning to To Pimp a Butterfly for lesson plans and J. Cole is performing songs like "Be Free" on the Late Show with David Letterman to devastating effect. One wants the story to have Public Enemy round out the movement with a quality release in the twilight of their careers. That is undoubtedly how the story should go. It's what I planned for, and by the sounds of it, it's what Chuck D wanted.
Unfortunately for fans, critics and Chuck D alike, that didn't go according to plan.
I guess somewhere God is laughing.