(Duck Down Music)
There are rappers. There are emcees. Then there’s an artist like Pharoahe Monch. A virtual demi-god amongst discerning Hip-Hop heads, the lyrical king from Queens has been amazing listeners with his verbal gymnastics for precisely twenty years now, having debuted in 1991 as one-half of Organized Konfusion alongside childhood friend Prince Po.
The pair’s debut single, the upbeat “Fudge Pudge”, was definitely a dope head-nodder that sat well amongst the jazz-infused sounds of the time from the likes of Main Source and Tribe, but it only hinted at the lyrical explosions that were to be heard on Organized’s self-titled debut album released later that same year. Cuts such as the complex “Releasing Hypnotical Gases” and concept-driven “Prisoners Of War” found the pair playing with flows, verse structure and language like poetical mad scientists, mixing the influences of golden-age heroes such as Big Daddy Kane and Kool G. Rap with their own love of comic books, science-fiction and vocabulary.
Although the duo released three albums as a partnership, it’s 1994’s “Stress (The Extinction Agenda)”, OK’s darker sophomore effort, that most fans consider to be their best, thanks to its almost flawless blend of brilliant wordplay and classic dusty-fingered production. It was also with this album that Organized stans really began to argue over who was the better out of the two, Monch or Po?
To say that Pharoahe consistently outshone Prince would be unfair, as both were masters of their craft. However, on their 1991 debut the pair had seemed evenly matched, yet on its follow-up Monch did begin to gain more attention, not necessarily because of what he was saying, but how he was saying it. Classic Pharoahe verses on the album’s title track and the legendary Buckwild remix of “Bring It On” found the former musical student of the late, great Paul C. gleefully playing with the constraints of structured rhymes, stretching out lines for effect, stuttering words, adopting different vocal tones, and generally rubbing the faces of lesser emcees in the enormity of his lyrical might.
All of which meant that by the time Organized Konfusion went their separate ways following 1997’s “The Equinox”, the rap world was hungry for a Monch solo project. A craving that was satisfied by 2000’s Rawkus-released “Internal Affairs”, which of course featured the timeless crowd-pleaser “Simon Says”.
But after such a memorable beginning to his solo career, Pharoahe’s output over the last decade has been sporadic to say the least, with Monch not releasing a follow up to the critically-acclaimed “Internal Affairs” until 2007’s “Desire”. So it’s something of an understatement to say that lyric-lovers have been heavily anticipating this new album from the self-proclaimed “God’s gift to vocabulary” since news broke of Pharoahe’s partnership with independent powerhouse Duck Down. With great power comes great responsbility, as the saying goes.
Straight off the bat, let it be said that “W.A.R.” is a good album. Is it a classic? No. Is it an album that sounds like it should’ve taken four years to complete? Probably not. But does it sound as though Monch has gotten lazy with the pen or lost his creative spark? Definitely not.
Although Pharoahe’s delivery may be a little more subdued and refined than his earlier excursions on wax, that doesn’t mean that his lyrical prowess has become any less impressive. One of Monch’s best performances on the album comes early on the Exile-produced “Evolve”. Over ethereal choir vocals the talented lyrical technician toys with his flow and cadence, delivering playful lines such as “So phenomenal with mics I don’t like myself, Sadomasochist emcee, I bite myself…”, subtly building a complex web of wordplay that hits from every angle with punchlines, metaphors and rhymes within rhymes.
The Marco Polo-produced title track sounds like theme music to a protest march, capturing the essence of Monch’s renegade rap persona perfectly with stomping drums and a searing rock guitar solo from Living Colour’s Vernon Reid. Amidst the chaotic soundbed, Pharoahe covers media manipulation, genetic experiments and New World Order dictatorship, claiming that he’s “guilty as charged if intellect’s a crime”.
The anti-police brutality anthem “Clap (One Day)” finds Australian producer M-Phazes doing his best DJ Premier impersonation, whilst the soulful “Black Hand Side” features a sensitive-yet-streetwise Styles P pouring out heartfelt ghetto angst as Monch ponders the future of today’s younger generation as they attempt to navigate their way through the senseless violence of the inner-city.
The Diamond D-produced “Shine” is another immediate standout, with the D.I.T.C. member supplying a warm backdrop of thumping beats and melodic chimes, as the asthmatic emcee boasts how “each line of speech is designed to transcend time”, with songstress Mela Machinko’s gritty vocals adding an organic dimension to the track.
“The Hitman” is proof of how a skilled lyricist can make familiar subject matter sound fresh, as Monch targets music industry politics and the lack of support for underground rap artists, attacking the obvious without saying the obvious (“If you are not performing fellatio for radio rotation, What’s the ratio for radio play at your station? If you’re not paying to play the record is dead, Puts a whole new spin on Radiohead”).
On the inspirational “Still Standing”, a beautiful blend of soaring strings and horns, Pharoahe ponders how challenges he’s faced both personal and professional have shaped the man and artist he is today.
Whilst fans will have little to complain about when it comes to the quality level of Monch’s rhymes throughout “W.A.R.”, the same cannot be said for some of his beat choices. “Let My People Go” is built around solid but unsurprising production from Fatin “10” Horton, whilst performances from Jean Grae and Royce Da 5’9″ on “Assassins” are hampered by a track that just doesn’t have the impact to match each emcee’s dynamic vocal presence.
“The Grand Illusion (Circa 1973)”, a rock/rap hybrid, also fails, sounding like a cross between an outtake off the last album from The Roots and a hungover Rage Against The Machine.
Yet that said, “W.A.R.” is still a strong effort that will do nothing to damage Monch’s reputation as one of the most advanced microphone masters of his generation. To still even be in the music business two decades after your debut would be considered a success by some, but for Monch to still be considered one of the best in his field twenty years after first unleashing his skills on the world is a testament to both his integrity and artistic individuality. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take the NYC legend another four years to drop his fourth solo album.
Or would an Organized Konfusion reunion project perhaps be too much to ask for?