Public Enemy, “What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?” (Def Jam)
The times could hardly be more right for a new Public Enemy album. “Grid” aims to bring hard-earned wisdom to songs about police violence, systemic racism and President Donald Trump — to again function, in Chuck D’s famous formulation, as “The Black CNN.” Unfortunately, the album only intermittently strikes with cohesive force.
It opens promisingly enough on the woozy, dystopian title track, with scant lyrics muttered by guest George Clinton. That’s followed by “GRID,” a banal beware-of-the-internet rant built around grating singsong repetition of the album’s title phrase by Flavor Flav.
PE does better on the blunt, Trump-targeting “State of the Union (STFU).” Surviving members of the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC give “Public Enemy Number Won” nostalgia appeal. And “Rest in Beats” and the Flav showcase “R.I.P. Blackat” convey real tenderness.
“Fight the Power: Remix 2020” exposes the album’s weaknesses. With guests Rapsody, Nas and Black Thought of the Roots crackling with energy, it’s a three-decade-old song that makes the new material sound stale in comparison.
Dan Deluca, Philadelphia Inquirer
Sufjan Stevens, “The Ascension” (Asthmatic Kitty)
This album sounds gigantic. It should. It speaks to a convergence of crises: romantic, political, spiritual, existential. Its songs are by turns wounded and angry, solitary and desperate for human contact, haunted by death and desperate to live on and find purpose. The lyrics invoke heartache, malaise, wrath, ancient legends and the Bible; the music opens up cavernous expanses and also goes boom.
The album is both a cry of despair and a prayer for the redemption Stevens is no longer sure he will find. The album’s finale is “America,” a 12-minute, four-chord, mournful indictment. But there’s no resolution, no salvation. There’s no promise of a happy ending anytime soon.
Jon Pareles, New York Times
• Gord Downie, “Away Is Mine”
• Sam Roberts, “All of Us”
• The Struts, “Strange Days”
• Kevin Morby, “Sundowner”