Jedi Mind Tricks have carved themselves a unique niche in the world of underground hip-hop, appealing mostly to hardcore heads with their combination of consistently great production and shockingly graphic lyrical content. Army of the Pharaohs is Jedi Mind Tricks MC Vinnie Paz’s side project, his attempt to create a horrorcore hip-hop super group; despite having released only one real EP, the Wu-Tang-style clan of affiliates has managed to build a surprising level of anticipation for its further work. Now the year is 2006, and Army of the Pharaohs is back with an expanded roster of a dozen MCs (Vinnie Paz, Esoteric, Apathy, Planetary, Crypt the Warchild, 7L, Celph Titled, King Syze, Reef the Lost Cauze, Chief Kamachi, Des Devious, and Faez One) and a debut album presented by Jedi Mind Tricks, The Torture Papers.
The album begins promisingly with the gloriously melodramatic, decaying boom-bap orchestra of “Battle Cry”. It’s like an unbelievably dope cipher, nine distinctively-flowing MCs jumping on and off the beat, attacking it from different angles, morphing it to their own styles; the song is six minutes but it feels like less, devoid of any choruses as it throws rapper after rapper while the strings press urgently on. “Tear It Down” is another definite highlight, the beat sliding smoothly before immediately cutting out to suspenseful eighth notes and back. Reef tears into the beat, Planetary holds up his verse in the middle, and Vinnie Paz closes the track in his trademark fashion: pure passion and unthrottled fury, his roaring verse cracking and stretching with every word.
As is expected from any project affiliated with Jedi Mind Tricks, the production is dark but gorgeous, tense strings and vocal samples much in the vein of Stoupe’s production for JMT. Surprisingly, Stoupe is not directly involved at all, producing none of these tracks, but even more surprisingly, the relatively unknown producers that do handle the album perform right up to his level, banging out beats on par with Stoupe’s own work. “Henry the 8th” is a horn-punctuated banger held together by busy woodwinds; “Narrow Grave” a beautifully down-tempo, eerie beat built around a sample of a woman calmly, wordlessly singing. “Feast of the Wolves” is another great orchestral beat, and album-closer “King Among Kings” is pitch-perfect terror and palpable distilled suspense.
Lyrically the Pharaohs flow well, unleashing the same sadistic, often over-the-top horrorcore rhymes fans have come to expect. Most of the MCs have their own recognizable style, and Vinnie Paz still has one of the best deliveries in horrorcore—even the most ludicrous, impossibly twisted lines sound more believable coming from his raw, throaty pipes than anyone else’s—but the content is nevertheless very, very repetitive. “I like to watch your brain exploding when the hollows hit,” he raps on “Henry the 8th”, and, two tracks later, “Fuck and let your brains blow.” This isn’t unexpected, considering the blatant tastelessness of the album cover alone (skulls, blood splatters, etc.), but the most interesting part is that the worst aspect of the lyrics is not even the sheer repulsiveness of the (at times almost comically exaggerated and cartoonish) violent content but rather the repetitiveness of the subject material.
The vast majority of the rhymes here fall into the category of either “threatening boast” or “boasting threat,” and that gets old fast, especially when the Pharaohs turn to simple, stupid hate messages like Apathy’s “Is there a heaven for a gangsta? / No, but there’s hell for a faggot” (this is, of course, before he proceeds to describe shooting your mother and raping your daughter). Sentiments like these undercut the production and end up taking away from the overall impact of the album. “Into the Arms of Angels” is atypically meditative, the Pharaohs dropping lines like “That’s why we get high and stay bent / Even the rose grows from the pavement” over a wash of acoustic guitar. And Pazienza talks about his family for the first time in a long, long while, and despite lapsing temporarily and threatening death on a relative he manages to pull past it and forgive. Then, the next track is called “The Torture Papers”, and… well, we all know how that goes. By the end of the album, the average listener is left bored and slightly numb.
Army of the Pharaohs - Tear It Down