December 16, 2011

A Reader's Gut Reaction: Pharoahe Monch - W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) (March 22, 2011)

(Today's Reader Review comes from Harris Shap, who skips ahead in Pharoahe Monch's solo catalog in favor of discussing his third album, W.A.R. (We Are Renegades). Leave your thoughts for him below.)

Pharoahe Monch is an emcee people should really know more about. His work as one-half of the duo Organized Konfusion is fantastic, and after they broke up, he went on to deliver two solo albums (Internal Affairs and Desire) that, in my mind, are bonafide classics. His flow is unmistakable, and the shit he does with his lyrics verges on mind-blowing. And yet, he’s both underrated and overlooked, shat upon by the music industry, and has forced his fans to suffer through long wait times between albums. So when I looked up his name in the sidebar and only found a write-up for his first album, Internal Affairs, I knew it was a situation that had to be rectified.

Monch only had a short four years to record and release his third effort (and his first for Duck Down Records), W.A.R. (We Are Renegades), as opposed to the better part of a decade it took him to unleash Desire. Let’s see how Monch performs under deadlines that other artists would go so far as to call “a reasonable timeframe.”

Well, it looks like Monch has expanded upon his weird sci-fi interests on this album. I'm not sure how he managed to hire Idris Elba, a British actor you probably know as Stringer Bell from The Wire (you should also check him out on the excellent British TV series Luther. Seriously. The man's got chops). It’s weird that Monch managed to get an actual actor for his rap album intro and not a weed carrier who considers Scarface to be the peak of cinema. Whatever dirt he has on Elba, it must be considerable. I’m actually going to advocate listening to this intro, as Elba’s voice is badass, the sci-fi vibe is weird enough to be entertaining, and Monch's production builds really good momentum into the next track. Yes, that's right, this skit actually had good production.

Now this is how you open an album. Triumphant horns lift you up, and an agonized, frantic wail smacks you right back down. The eerie, pulsing instrumental (from something called the Lion's Share Music Group...yeah, me neither) backs Monch’s lyrics, which would sound like boasts on any other backdrop but come across as cold statements of fact against this one. A masterful mission statement, one that only runs for two-and-a-half minutes. One verse, no hook. Similar structurally to the title track on Common’s Be, but completely different tonally.

Another really good beat, this time from Exile. This track uses an ethereal choir to back another one of Monch’s one verse run-ons, and, like the previous track, it really works. Monch brings his A-game lyrically, deifying himself through some great imagery and absolutely tearing the song apart with his internal rhymes. There’s one line on here that’s positively masturbatory. You’ll know it when you hear it, as Exile drops the beat out specifically to tell you it’s happening. This is some good shit.

I can see where Monch was going with this: a big, powerful track, similar to what he did with the title track on Desire, which also came in at about the same point on that album. But where “Desire” was a powerful, soulful release after the tension of “Free” (just go listen to Desire, you two), “W.A.R.” feels blustery and unnecessary after the quiet power of the last track. Immortal Technique’s hook sounds cartoonish against a beat that really doesn’t hit as hard as he needs it to. The song also suffers for Monch’s vocals, which aren’t nearly angry enough for the track to work. Vernon Reid (of Living Colour fame) lays down some electric guitar over the track, which at least gives it a unique sound, but it isn't enough. This just feels lacking.

The M-Phazes beat is really damn good, using chopped-up vocals and some skillful scratching by DJ Boogie Blind to build a soulful cacophony that really suits Monch’s inner-city subject matter. The hook by Showtyme is short and to the point, contributing some of the great soul sound he added to Monch’s previous project. Monch’s lyricism is aces, as usual. His breakdown over the handclaps at the end is pretty damn sweet.

Styles P (of The Lox) absolutely makes this track. His verse doesn’t transcend time and space or anything, but it provides some naked emotionality and a sense of vulnerability that is almost completely absent from the rest of the album, due to Monch’s constant posturing and arcane wordplay. Not that what Monch does is bad: it’s what you sign on for whenever you listen to his music. But the guest verse is like a breath of fresh air. Monch said in an interview that he wanted the song to feel like a cool drink of water after the earlier tracks, and it actually is. Phonte’s hook runs a little long, and Monch’s verse is completely forgettable after Styles P's, but the song still works, especially with the mournful strings on the beat.

Monch starts to rebuild the energy that he lost with the last two downbeat tracks, using a carnival-esque instrumental and a riff on a classic gospel song as the hook. It works, although Monch comes across as more of a cranky old man than one of rap’s elder statesmen when he bitches for a few lines about how low kids wear their pants these days. Fun and upbeat, but entirely disposable.

Diamond D’s stripped-down xylophone beat (never thought I’d use that particular combination of words) is strange, but it works really well with Monch’s flow, which flows much more quickly on this track than on most of the others on here. A nice change-up from the heavy soul sounds from the last four tracks, but I’m not sure it’d sound as good on its own: the beat is just too fucking weird. I’m not exactly sure why this was chosen to be the first single, since pretty much every other song on this album could be considered more accessible. I've warmed up to it, though, and Monch sounds really good on here.

God, this fucking track. I’ve seen a lot of people commend this as a standout, but this sucks shit through a straw. Mr. Porter delivers an awful hook, the beat rattles around like an old broken-down car and sucks all the energy out of the track (I think there might be a reversed bass loop, which would explain it, but I can’t confirm), and Monch is on complete autopilot. Despite a silly-ass intro that claims that “you will only hear racial shit”, there’s not a lot of stuff about race (or anything) to be found on here. In Paul Edwards' book How to Rap, O.C. explained that Monch tends to write down lines and use them five years later. This sounds like a track entirely made up of those dated lines, just a bunch of scattershot phrases without anything driving them or solid punchlines to make them worth listening to. Luckily, this track is short, so you might not need to skip over it.

Here’s Monch’s obligatory “why the music industry sucks” track, which at first glance might seem repetitive, since complaining about the music industry is essentially all that Monch does at this point in his career. But here’s the thing: with an entire song devoted to the topic, he actually gets to talk about his favorite punching bag in depth, which makes this track much more entertaining than the endless lip-service on the topic that he fills the rest of his songs with. Here’s the other thing: the M-Phazes beat fucking knocks, sounding like something straight out of a Tarantino flick. Twangy bass always gets me.

This is unquestionably the best track on the album. Jean Grae completely rips the shit out of her verse, riding the M-Phazes beat like a rocket-powered racehorse. Monch raps faster than usual when he jumps on the mic, but after the breathtaking intensity of Grae’s verse, he can’t help but seem a little weak (although ending on “Fuck you, pay me!” helps remedy the situation). Then, after a short mid-song skit that builds the tension to dizzying levels, Royce da 5’9’’ steps in to close out the song with a verse that absolutely oozes confidence and power, dropping wordplay that rivals some of Monch’s best lines from his entire catalog. The instrumental knocks, and the weird sci-fi concept lets the three emcees take their braggadocio completely over the top. This should have been the lead single.

You know, Monch’s lyrics on here are pretty damn good, and the whole classic rock vibe isn’t one he’s really tapped into, so this could have been an interesting departure from the rest of the album. That is, if it weren’t boring as fuck. It contains what must be the longest fucking hook I’ve ever heard (or at least the most tedious) . Let me put this in perspective: the hook is fifty seconds long. That’s almost a minute! One of Monch’s actual verses runs a few seconds shorter! How does this even happen? Why they put this slow, rambling mess after the high-octane “Assassins” is way beyond me.

This was a great way to end the album. Soaring strings, a powerful hook by Scott that doesn’t drag the song down, and a slightly more down-to-earth Monch that delivers some fantastic bars about his asthma. Scott ultimately gets the final word with her sung verse, which surprises me: I expected Monch to drop in another crazy sci-fi skit. But it’s a fitting finale.

THE LAST WORD: The biggest detriment to W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) is its homogeneity. Unfortunately, the whole “We Are Renegades” concept makes the entire album about confrontation, which restricts the emotional tone that Monch feels like he can work with. Unlike Desire, where there are triumphant songs, sad songs, evil songs, and just-plain-crazy songs, W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) is mostly made up of angry songs, and I don't even mean engaging, N.W.A. levels of angry: I mean he sounds like an irritated old man. On the other hand, the songs are pretty damn good on an individual level, and when you cut out some of the chaff, the album is a pretty tight piece of art. And let’s not forget that even at his most inane (“Simon Says,” if that was even a question) Monch is an incredible lyricist, dropping tongue-twisting, intelligent shit all over beats that range from really good to, well, “Haile Selassie Karate.” Whatever complaints I have are negated by the fact that this album is just quality music, plain and simple. This may not be as enthusiastic a write-up as it would have been for Monch’s previous work (or his Organized Konfusion shit), but I still recommend a buy nonetheless. Support Monch, and maybe he’ll be able to cut down the time between his albums even more drastically.

-Harris Shap

(Questions? Comments? Concerns? Leave your thoughts below.)


  1. djbosscrewwreckaDecember 16, 2011

    Nice review, thanks.
    I couldn't get into this album too much because the song style structures often take away from his lyricism, for me, so it seemed less focused. The "experimental/soulful/serious/political" route he's gone down was more powerful on 'Desire'.

  2. I love monch and really wanted to like this album, but for the most part it was a miss. A few decent tracks, but nothing memorable enough to warrant repeat listens. I'd put that more on the beat selections than the lyrics, but it is what it is.... will still always check for what this dude puts out, so better luck next time, monch!

  3. @djbosscrewwrecka: He's definitely more scattershot with his subject matter on this album. You probably noticed that I talk more about the beats and the overall feel of the songs more than I do about any of Monch's individual lyrics. There's a reason for that.

  4. definitely agree on "Assassins" which is, well, literally a lyrical assassination...

  5. @Anonymous: You know, full disclosure, that's closer to how I felt when I decided to write this review. But as I listened, I had to pay active attention to music in order to figure out what I wanted to write. It improved my view (and enjoyment) of the album when I tried to figure out cons while I was listening and had a lot of trouble.

  6. That last response was me. Sorry. Had my settings wrong.

  7. This album is not on the level of Internal Affairs but it's miles better than the crap industry rappers are coming out with

  8. I loved Monch in Organized Konfusion. I really, really dislike Monch's first solo album. For some reason it rubs me the wrong way, maybe because I find it so hard to accept how different he sounds than the glorious shit-talker from O.K. Your review makes me want to give this one a shot, so maybe I will. Good job!