Ranking the Album: Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet

Sorting through and acknowledging one of hip-hop's landmarks.

Public Enemy Fear of a Black Planet

Ranking the Album is a feature in which we take an iconic or beloved record and dare to play favorites. It’s a testament to the fact that classic album or not, there are still some tracks we root for more than others to pop up in our shuffles. Today, in honor of it recently turning 25, we rank the tracks of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet from worst to best.

How do you follow a classic? If you’re Public Enemy, you make another. In 1988, the group bum rushed the show with their powerful sophomore album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, one that still stands as a seminal rap artifact today, and they established themselves as the militant, sociopolitical voice of black oppression. With a strong singles run, including “Rebel Without a Pause”, “Bring the Noise”, and “Don’t Believe the Hype”, the group became an unlikely commercial success, taking edgy shots at white pop culture icons and weaponizing black nationalism. Elvis was a hero to most, but he didn’t mean shit to them. Louis Farrakhan was their prophet. They were voicing their opinions with volume, and Chuck D was the mouthpiece of their radical brand of social commentary, one that knew no bounds.

With the huge cultural impact of It Takes a Nation… pushing them to platinum status, Public Enemy doubled down on their politically charged message with their 1990 follow-up, Fear of a Black Planet. The album was inspired by Dr. Frances Cress Welsing’s theory of “Color Confrontation and Racism (White Supremacy)”, with a thesis spelled out by the album’s title, and the result was another masterstroke. Fear of a Black Planet, which has been preserved by the Library of Congress in the National Recording Registry, is a black empowerment piece with strong criticisms of institutional racism, and though not Public Enemy’s best work, it is the truest to the group’s core mission statement. Here, Consequence of Sound editors and staffers rank every track on the album, exploring why it remains one of rap’s greatest and most controversial albums 25 years later.

–Sheldon Pearce
Staff Writer

20. Final Count of the Collision Between Us and the Damned

Track #: 19

What feels like a funky and forgettable, album-ending cooldown actually turns out to be a countdown to the greatest hip-hop anthem of all time (spoiler?). It’s always disappointing when this 49-second track surfaces on my MP3 shuffle because I know the odds are infinitesimal that its rightful successor is coming next. One day it’ll happen, though. –Matt Melis

Hard Rhymer (Best Lyric): Instrumental

Bring That Beat Back (Best Sample): No Samples

19. Meet the G That Killed Me

Track #: 6

One of Fear of a Black Planet’s least interesting skits, sonically speaking, also happens to be one of its worst ideologically with one brief but obvious display of homophobia. The skit is about the A.I.D.S. epidemic, and while very timely, it’s also very indicative of its era with the lyric “Man to man/ I don’t know if they can/ From what I know/ The parts don’t fit (Aww shit).” The rest of it is pretty harmless, citing needle sharers and hetero couples not practicing safe sex as other perpetrators, but PE definitely shortchange their stance as civil rights activists here. –Sheldon Pearce

Hard Rhymer: N/A

Bring That Beat Back: No samples

18. Pollywanacraka

Track #: 7

“Pollywannacracka” is truly a minefield. It tackled issues of interracial relationships from multiple angles at a time when they still weren’t much discussed. Chuck D takes interest in members of both genders choosing white partners for assumed status or wealth instead of love. It was an issue wrapped up in society’s ever-present, ever-subliminal message that teaches “white is good and black is bad.” He also took on the naysayers of interracial relationships — so long as it was based on love — using satirical plot lines to highlight the ignorance of such a position. Tolerance has come a long way since 1990, and button pushers like Chuck D have played a huge role in getting us here. –Kevin McMahon

Hard Rhymer: “There should not be any hatred/ For a brother or a sister/ Whose opposite race they’ve mated”

Bring That Beat Back: “Atomic Dog” by George Clinton

17. Reggie Jax

Track #: 15

Here we have a brief freestyle track. “Reggie Jax” is touted as a PE homage to reggae music. Its baseline is covered in sludge, sitting amidst deeply pitched bass kicks that seem to suck you into a hole in the middle of the song. At 1:36, “Reggie Jax” is one of densest tracks on this album, dozens of ambiguous sound bites flutter under Chuck D’s breath. The lyrics are nothing to write home about compared to the rest of the album, but it serves as a crystalline example of PE-Funk: dense, challenging, and so deep it’s difficult to find the bottom. –Kevin McMahon

Hard Rhymer: “Miss that funky list of super rockin’ cuts that you can’t resist”

Bring That Beat Back: No samples

16. Anti-Nigger Machine

Track #: 8

Race, class war, and distrust for authority define Public Enemy’s best moments, and “Anti-Nigger Machine” hits everything on the checklist. But the song is far more thoughtful and less invective than its title would lead you to think. Chuck D described the song as a warning against complacency, a cautionary tale of what can happen when we put our trust and safety in the hands of faceless government bodies and structural powers. Message received. –Ryan Bray

Hard Rhymer: “Once they never gave a fuck about what I said/ Now they listen and they want my head”

Bring That Beat Back: “Nautilus” by Bob James

15. War at 33⅓

Track #: 18

When Chuck D gets it rolling, he’s a freight train that barrels through tracks, one of the most formidable rappers ever. He could command a record or crowd with the weighted boom of his voice alone, but he could also go off the rails in close quarters when things get cluttered and there’s too much happening. That’s definitely the case on “War at 33⅓”, with its heavy drum line and that piercing synth that slowly oscillates from one ear to the other. While his message does still pack a mean punch (“Can I live my life/ Without ‘em treatin’ every brother like me like I’m holding a knife?/ Alright, time to smack Uncle Sam/ I don’t give a damn”), it doesn’t land with the same impact as some of the more powerful tracks on Fear of a Black Planet higher up the list. –Sheldon Pearce

Hard Rhymer: “Went west in my quest for intelligence/ Climbed the fence, took the teacher on/ Ain’t seen him since, hence he winced and convinced that the Black/ Was back revolving to a renaissance/ Bronze to the gold, I told, felt bold/ taught a so-called teacher our role in civilizing the whole globe”

Bring That Beat Back: No samples.

14. Incident at 66.6 FM

Track #: 4

Public Enemy is a difficult name to live up to, but “Incident at 66.6 FM” — comprised of a series of clips taken from an Alan Colmes call-in radio show featuring Chuck D as a guest — demonstrates just how controversial and threatening the group’s socially conscious messages were to many people back at the outset of the ’90s. The track mashes together thoughtful call-ins, shout-outs from PE fans, and insults like “these monkeys” or suggestions to “go back to Africa” all while a milquetoast Colmes keeps warning Chuck that white people and media are upset with him. The most memorable moment comes when one offended caller gives his opinion of seeing Public Enemy open for Beastie Boys: “I thought it was one of the most appalling things I have ever seen. There were two gentlemen in cages on other sides of the stage with fake Uzis. Jesus, it was unbelievable. And when I see somebody who is wearing one of their shirts, I think that they’re scum, too.” Fifteen years later, Colmes and his callers would appear again in “66.6 Strikes Again” on New Whirl Odor. I guess once a public enemy, always a public enemy. –Matt Melis

Hard Rhymer: Instrumental

Bring That Beat Back: Clips from an Alan Colmes call-in radio show with Chuck D

13. Contract on the World Love Jam

Track #: 1

When I first started listening to Public Enemy, it wasn’t because of the lyrics (I was too young to understand them, anyway), but because of their samples. Coming out a year after the Beastie’s sampling opus, Paul’s Boutique, The Bomb Squad recognized the standards for sampling had risen. In response, they expanded upon their groundbreaking work by crafting some of the densest and hardest-hitting beats of their career for “Fear of a Black Planet”. A foreboding introduction filled with running commentary (via sampled soundbites) on the state of both Public Enemy and the world, “Contract on the World Love Jam” is a short instrumental that sounds like both the inspiration behind DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing” and trip-hop. –Stevie Dunbar

Hard Rhymer: Instrumental

Bring That Beat Back: “Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music” by The Spinners

12. Leave This Off Your Fuckin Charts

Track #: 16

There are no rhymes on “”Leave This Off Your Fuckin Charts”, but there doesn’t really need to be. That bass line communicates so much funk on its own. There’s a lot happening every second. Its lack of lyrics just adds to its defiant tone, a clear statement made by its title. It’s an interesting statement to make, especially for a group establishing itself as one of rap’s great early commercial success stories (this album would end up Top 10 on the pop charts), but as the reigning Public Enemy #1 to all industry politics, who better to make it? This is a group of young rap stars telling the institution to shove it. That they still charted despite spitting in the industry’s face only furthered their legend. –Sheldon Pearce

Hard Rhymer: Instrumental

Bring That Beat Back: “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” by Hall & Oates

11. B Side Wins Again

Track #: 17

“Food for the brains/ Beats for the feet” may be the perfect encapsulation of Public Enemy’s appeal. Like many songs on Fear of a Black Planet, Chuck D’s lyrics not only focus on the state of the nation, but the state of Public Enemy as well: “…the record’s to the left and political/ And you search the stores/ Attack the racks with your claws/ For the rebels without a pause.” Public Enemy were creating records that combined thoughtful political commentary with heady beats and turned it into a mainstream proposition: Fear of a Black Planet sold one million copies during its first week of release. And the B-side wins again. –Stevie Dunbar

Hard Rhymer: “Cause the record’s to the left and political/ And you search the stores/ Attack the racks with your claws/ For the rebels without a pause/ Cause the B side wins again, again, again”

Bring That Beat Back: “The Assembly Line” by The Commodores

10. Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya Man

Track #: 14

Something about the delivery of the line “Flavor Flav’s got problems of his own” makes me crack a smile every time. “Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya, Man!” is chock-full of one-liners from arguably the game’s greatest hype man. Flav’s laugh and delivery make the song feel comically lighthearted, but in a way that never comes off as a joke. The yet un-blossomed reality TV star talks about a down-and-out fellow who refuses to help himself. Flav can’t do anything for him, and it doesn’t seem like anyone else can either. In the end, it actually feels as though the message is one of self-empowerment. The lyrics acknowledge we create many of our own problems, and it’s up to us to solve them. –Kevin McMahon

Hard Rhymer: “Flavor Flav’s got problems of his own”

Bring That Beat Back: “Hot Pants… I’m Coming, I’m Coming, I’m Coming” by Bobby Byrd

9. Power to the People

Track #: 10

“And you thought the beat slowed down,” Chuck D says over a blissful organ intro on “Power to the People”. Hardly. Save for that short respite, the song is a fit of scattered, frenetic energy. Samples run amock all over the track, and when Chuck D passionatey implores the forces that be to “Turn Me Loose” (over a sample of none other than “Turn Me Loose” by Sly & the Family Stone), it’s enough to make even the most passive of listeners want to join his populist cause. –Ryan Bray

Hard Rhymer: “It’s a black thing, so you’ve got to understand”

Bring That Beat Back: “Turn Me Loose” by Sly & the Family Stone

8. Fear of a Black Planet

Track #: 12

“Fear of a Black Planet” is packed with loaded sociopolitical commentary, and the record’s title track speaks for itself. This time out, Public Enemy take pointed stabs at interracial dating and the difficulty people have with looking beneath the surface of one’s skin. Just a few short years before Rodney King’s impassioned plea for us all to get along, Chuck D was asking some pointed questions of his own. “What’s wrong with some color in your family tree?” –Ryan Bray

Hard Rhymer: “Why is this fear of black from white influence who you choose?”

Bring That Beat Back: “Modern Women” by Eddie Murphy

7. Revolutionary Generation

Track #: 13

In a hip-hop game where misogyny feels commonplace, “Revolutionary Generation” chooses to see women as worthy partners in a cause, as assets rather than asses and tits. Sure, a line like “It takes a man to take a stand/ Understand it takes a woman to make a stronger man” may induce some cringes 25 years later, but the ultimate message is strength through solidarity between genders. “Revolutionary Generation” focuses its crosshairs at atrocities and injustices suffered by black women both historically and at present and sounds the call for these women to finally start getting some r-e-s-p-e-c-t. Clearly, PE understood that empowering women meant empowering an entire people. It’s sad that so much of today’s popular hip-hop missed the message. –Matt Melis

Hard Rhymer: “They disrespected mama and treated her like dirt/ America took her, reshaped her, raped her/ Nope, it never made the paper”

Bring That Beat Back: “Where Did Our Love Go” by Diana Ross & the Supremes

6. Welcome to the Terrordome

Track #: 5

Chuck D described the Terrordome as the “House of the ’90s.” A forward-thinking track about the upcoming decade, “Welcome to the Terrordome” has the quintessential hard-hitting PE beat that makes the music sound like it’s coming for you. The snare is wound so tight it sounds like angry raps on a tin sheet, pushing the growing numbers of PE followers forward. It’s a song that came out of a stressful time in Chuck D’s life, looking forward at what was to come. The MC was looking at the ’90s potential, juxtaposed with the obstacles standing between a more equal society. Chuck D doesn’t know who we can trust. He grapples with the fact that traitors come in all shapes, sizes, and colors with lines like, “Every brother ain’t a brother cause a color/Just as well could be undercover.” One thing is certain, Chuck D knows that he can’t go it alone: “Welcome to the terrordome.” –Kevin McMahon

Hard Rhymer: “Black to the bone my home is your home/ So welcome to the Terrordome”

Bring That Beat Back: “Psychedelic Shack” by The Temptations

5. Who Stole the Soul?

Track #: 11

The concept of “soul” is important to Chuck D and Public Enemy: the near endless stream of old-school soul samples, lyrical references to James Brown, and even an album titled “How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul???”. Due to this focus, “Who Stole the Soul” features some of The Bomb Squad’s most punishing beats and samples right down to the sample of a man stating, “I want to register a complaint” before a gunshot rings out and Chuck’s most scathing lyrics: “Why when the Black move it, Jack move out/ Come to stay Jack moves away/ Ain’t we all people?/ How the hell can a color be no good for a neighborhood.” –Stevie Dunbar

Hard Rhymer: “Plain and simple the system’s a pimp/ But I refuse to be a ho/ Who stole the soul?!”

Bring That Beat Back: “It’s a New Day So Let a Man Come in and Do the Popcorn” by James Brown

4. Brothers Gonna Work It Out

Track #: 2

Willie Hutch’s underrated “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” has been sampled and referenced by everyone from Dr. Dre to Chance The Rapper to The Chemical Brothers. Starting off as a slow and smooth flute jam, it opens up into a wah- and harp-driven funk number. Hutch preaches, “United we can get over/ Yet we’re still apart/ Cos’ each day demands respect/ And to give an equal share,” and Chuck D was surely listening. While Chuck’s version is undoubtedly angrier, he shares the same sentiment in the song’s hook (which samples the original): “You got it … what it takes/ Go get it … where you want it?/ Go get it … get involved/ Cause the brothers in the street are willing to work it out.” –Stevie Dunbar

Hard Rhymer: “In 1995, you’ll twist to this/ As you raise your fist to the music/ United we stand, yes divided we fall/ Together we can stand tall”

Bring That Beat Back: “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” by Willie Hutch

3. Burn Hollywood Burn

Track #: 9

This excellent critique of film culture and how it perpetuates black stereotypes groups three of the best emcees of an era (Chuck D, Ice Cube, and Big Daddy Kane) together and slaps harsh but fair appraisals on Hollywood as a body that marginalizes black voices. Chuck D is in a full wind sprint from the starter pistol, jumping directly into the crux of the issue and responding by (hypothetically) burning the institution to the ground. He delivers Public Enemy bravado and commentary in spades, but it’s Kane who comes out the big winner here. “So let’s make our own movies like Spike Lee/ ‘Cause the roles being offered don’t strike me/ There’s nothing that the black man could use to earn/ Burn Hollywood Burn,” he raps with conviction. His anchor leg takes the baton from a moderately disconnected Ice Cube and drives the points of this scathing analysis home. –Sheldon Pearce

Hard Rhymer: “Yeah, I’ll check out a movie/ But it’ll take a black one to move me/ Get me the hell away from this TV/ All this views and news are beneath me”

Bring That Beat Back: “Hot Wheels (The Chase)” by Badder Than Evil

2. 911 Is a Joke

Track #: 3

A rare moment with Flavor Flav in the driver’s seat turns out to be a time-tested classic. “911 Is a Joke” is a hook-driven ditty set to a few choice ’70s funk samples. On the surface, it’s the funkiest track on the album — which serves as a direct contrast to its subject matter. Within “911 Is a Joke”, Flav aggressively berates the uselessness of emergency service response. The track paints emergency response as nothing more than “body snatchers” — making it to the scene at their leisure with total disregard for those in need. The song illuminates just another side of the reprehensible dichotomy between black and white communities. Flavor Flav’s sardonic tone and lyrics help the listener feel the reality of the situation. Like many PE songs, we’re not listening to a simple critique; it’s a blunt, forceful statement of fact that still demands attention. —Kevin McMahon

Hard Rhymer: “I call ’em body snatchers cause they come to fetch ya/ With an autopsy ambulance just to dissect ya”

Bring That Beat Back: “Devil with the Bust” by Sound Experience

1. Fight the Power

Track #: 20

Public Enemy never minced words, and their fearlessness gave their music a certain power and gravity few acts in popular music have ever matched. “Fight the Power” is one of many PE songs that came right at its target with clenched fists, and it’s as relevant today as ever. The song might be rooted in 1989, but given the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and even more recently Charleston and Baltimore, its anti-authoritarian message still rings loudly with truth. –Ryan Bray

Hard Rhymer: “People, people, we are the same/ No we’re not the same/ ‘Cause we don’t know the game”

Bring That Beat Back: “Funky Drummer” by James Brown