To be completely honest, I’m having a hard time writing about music right now. In the face of the horrors that are befalling the people of Japan – just before sitting down to write this the Fukushima nuclear power plant moved closer to complete meltdown – rating a hip-hop album on a scale from one to five seems like a silly and insignificant task. And then I turned on Pharoahe Monch’s new album W.A.R. (We Are Renegades). By no means does Pharoahes’ third album change the terrible situation facing people of Japan, nor does it …
DJBooth Album Review
(If your head just exploded reading that intro don’t worry, Wiz Khlifa’s got an album coming out soon – I’m willing to bet that intro will be mostly made up of stoner jokes.)
Now that I’ve kicked things off about as deeply as possible let’s surface and review some details. A New York City rapper widely hailed for his fearlessly original lyricism (how ironic then that he’s probably best known for yelling “Simon says get the f**k up!), from his early days as one-half of Organized Konfusion Pharoahe’s refused to make anything other than meaningful music, and the result has been a relatively small catalog; W.A.R. is only his third project in over ten years. If you’re going to pursue quality over quantity you better deliver quality, and thankfully W.A.R. is nothing but quality.
Of course part of Pharoahe’s limited output has been his refusal to play the commercial rap game and the revolution he’s hoping to lead into war has two primary targets: the political power structure and the music power structure. With ten seconds of The Hitman he’s already taken a shot at one of the most powerful men in music, “Jimmy Iovine is as corrupt as Don King,” and he’s just getting warmed up. Before he’s done pay-for-play DJs, labels and complicit artists have all felt his wrath, but crucially The Hitman isn’t a “beef” record, and W.A.R. is not a beef album. Whether it’s on title track W.A.R., also featuring perpetual fighters Immortal Technique and Vernon Reid, or on the fantastically titled Haile Selassie Karate, Pharoahe is outside the system looking in, a position he’s more than happy to stand firm there.
But what separates a rapper from an academic or activist is, well, music, and Pharoahe’s got more than a little dopeness to back up his intellectual depth. There’s a very, very short list of emcees who could pull off a record like Calculated Amalgamation, which finds Pharoahe veering wildly between battle raps and almost abstract poetry: “Raised the bar so high the bar’s afraid to look down / spend nights in a casket, at dawn I’m a king.” (The man loves him some Don King references.) And if that’s too complicated for you some straight spitting goes down on Assassins, which finds Monch destroying a mic alongside Jean Grae and Royce da 5’9”. But W.A.R. is not all doom and warning, there are more then enough moments of hope to keep the album from sinking under its own weight, most notably on the instantly engaging Shine. That soulfulness continues throughout the album, coming up again on Black Hand Side and Clap before climaxing with Jill Scott on the triumphant Still Standing.
Ultimately W.A.R. is a concept album, a warning that like all science fiction movies portrays a vision of the future meant to wake us up to the realities of the present. But the storyline that unwinds throughout W.A.R. is really just a finishing touch. You can pick up the album at any point and immediately get the message: “If y’all are telling me today’s music is suitable and appealing then I’m telling you, the feeling is not mutual.” While I don’t feel inclined to take things as far as Pharoahe, we need more artists like him to remind us of just how deeply music’s impact can be felt. Is it really asking too much to demand our musical heroes try to change the world? Perhaps, but Monch isn’t afraid of the challenge, and W.A.R. is his battle cry.
Listen to More: Pharoahe Monch Written by Nathan S.
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