Editor’s note: Yes, this album came out over a year ago, but it’s only been promoted recently. Go figure.
The Pharcyde: They like the drunk uncle in your family—NOT FUNNY!
There’s a track on the Pharcyde’s new record, Humboldt Beginnings, where they categorically dismiss their competitors in the rap game. Sound familiar? Of course it does, it’s the rapper’s first theme. So that’s not what bothers me about it. What bothers me is that it isn’t funny! Pharcyde, do I have to slap you all across the face with a sockeye? How is it that an album dedicated to marijuana lacks good jokes? Fuck you, Pharcyde. You’ve once again traded in a sense of humor for a numb blend of socially conscious stoner rap. It took you a DECADE to put this album out? You had an album about five years ago called Plain Rap, but that didn’t sound enticing—I assume you don’t include it in your discography. From Bizarre Ride II tha Pharcyde to Plain Rap? What’s next, We Suck at Rap? Yes, that is exactly what your newest album is called. Pharcyde: Go work at the funeral home for a while (you look like you already do work there) and learn from the experts what is funny and what isn’t. You sound and look like the only group ever directly inspired by the worst A Tribe Called Quest album, The Love Movement. Why? Why?
Sure, the Pharcyde knows from meet-and-greets that its fans are the same white college boys with Celtic tattoos who buy Jurassic 5 and Deltron 3030 and whatever, so it figures it’s entirely fair to skip from comedy to sincerity and keep the same people interested. Wrong! So wrong! Yes, it’s true that Talib Kweli and Young Jeezy can coexist in the mainstream because, by default of rap’s origins, it’s always socially conscious. But that’s why YOU, Pharcyde, can also be socially conscious when you’re being funny. Please, be funny again. Eminem is not funny anymore—he looks more and more like bok choy with a bandanna. (I’ll shit-talk Paul Barman in a minute, don’t worry.) When rap is Public Enemy, it is definitely a voice of the socially conscious artist. But, as history has proven, rap is political and culturally provocative even when it’s 2 Live Crew. The pimp’s story, the gangster’s story, the drug addicts, the college dropouts, and the postmodern self-conscious rappers all write battle raps that conform to the long-standing tradition of MCs dismissing their peers as illiterate rhymers, idea-biters, conformists, and neighborhood sell-outs. You aren’t really rapping if you aren’t battling. Well, the Pharcyde is like this: Socially conscious so far as it suits its battle raps. It’s just another weapon to unsettle and weaken the other guy’s skills, call him on the hypocrisy of his greedy poses. For instance, doesn’t it seem in retrospect a little ridiculous that 50 Cent took on Ja Rule, considering it’s now obvious that they’re the same guy? So it’s not a little surprising that the kinds of rappers the Pharcyde cuts down are the ones not taking the art form seriously enough. The battle rap is always directed at the flipside of your own coin, that’s what makes it so intense, hearing the artist self-immolate with anger and self-disgust. That paradox is what gave original battle raps a sense of competitive fraternity, not all-out war. The MC understood that the real enemy was the mainstream culture that forced him to holler from the street corners, politically powerless except for the strength of his voice.
As rap evolved, it had to push the limits of the lyrics, and the narratives became more extreme, and you get El-P and Beans but also Trillville and Splack Pack. And for every socially conscious track on the Pharcyde’s new record, there’s about three tracks devoted to the virtues of marijuana and/or multiple sex partners. Other tracks are just being weird. So while the Pharcyde is commonly sided with the socially conscious guys, what I mean to suggest is that the Pharcyde is not Public Enemy, they are entertainers with quick messages and quicker wits, and they have once again failed to realize their own strengths.
The Pharcyde has been and could be again one of the classic party rap groups, like Jungle Brothers, not the Black Eyed Peas—all about the MC, not the stage show. Bizarre Ride II tha Pharcyde, its first album released way back in 1992, was downright comedy. Sporting cartoon cover art, it was pretty much the collective dream of every blunted West Coast hip hopper that someone make a Fat Albert-style cartoon about these guys, and pronto. The skits were great (“Quinton’s on his way, Quinton’s on his way, Quiton’s on his way with another jay, and it’s okay, everything’s okay…”), they were bopping in this harmless, hilarious way, and what you hoped was for more of the same, but even wittier. It wasn’t that rap could never be comedic (Prince Paul is the one to finally prove this), it just had to be extremely witty. So long as it was as word-wise as the gangsta rappers who dominated, the Pharcyde was sure to have a huge following. In a genre of music in desperate need of a satirist, the Pharcyde dropped the ball. (Busdriver picked it up.) The worst thing that could have happened in reaction to Bizarre Ride might be if someone dissed the Pharcyde in a battle-rap for being so childish, and for the Pharcyde’s self-respect to plummet… and it’d release an album that was far too sincere to compensate.
That’s what happened. The hungry voices back on the East once again took apart their Cali competitors like wet KFC chicken legs. Along with Cypress Hill, it might have been the door-slam of battle raps for the Pharcyde’s career when Prodigy of Mobb Deep said he was sick and tired of hearing guys rapping about how high they were getting and “all that space shit that don’t even make no sense”. Then and there, Mobb Deep turned the tide, and sold the world that their new cold, merciless style of gangsta rap was the new standard for an even more engaged and socially conscious music. And it was great, but fans knew there was room for both. Why didn’t the Pharcyde realize it could still be funny after The Infamous came out? Meanwhile they’d have to get Prince Paul to bring in an NPR geek with a little Lenny Bruce in his pants to play the clown at the rap party. MC Paul Barman was not the solution. Barman is a worse problem than the prepuce at a bris.
Labcabincalifornia, the Pharcyde’s second album, was a kind of soulful redressing of its image. From kids to klassy, and not a hair out of place in the transition. Was anyone going to buy Fatlip trying to front in a Motown white suit? No. They were going to have to walk backwards through the backstreets for anyone to be impressed by this change of pace (quick! get Spike on the speaker!). Stoned skateboarders keep the group afloat so long as they can remember to show up at their concerts. By 2000, the skateboarders had seen the Pharcyde 600 times each and were finally beginning to remember the experience, meaning they didn’t need to go see them anymore and sing along to “shot him in the ass on the downstroke”. No one in his right mind has memorized lyrics off an album called Plain Rap. Will anyone remember to sing along to the songs on this new record? No. I doubt it. I seriously doubt there’s a single person who will put this on and start singing along to it. Aside from a few amusing reefer tracks at the beginning, not a hell of a lot of skaters are going to be grinding to the weak-ass nu-jazz maundering and bistro handclaps and “thank you"s instead of shout-outs. A track like “The Uh-Huh” is a pretty great Q-Tip-friendly organ and drum break, with some clubby verses about getting high at the party. But I’m not laughing. What’s special about this? Their new member is called Spaceboyboogie. That’s not funny. Why am I not laughing? Fatlip? Where are you? Who is this freaky-eyebrow guy in your stead? He has the same hairstyle as Lil’ Tootsie. Why isn’t he funnier? He looks funny.
Woody Allen used to hear this, too. “I liked your early work, when you were funnier.” It must be a burden to be funny. That a person would refuse themselves use of a talent must mean it’s too hard on the psyche. Rap music is all about being taken seriously as a man. So that’s a problem when you’re talking like a baby and rapping about getting herpes. There’s also the fact that comedy music is not cool. Not since the Fat Boys has a comedy rap group been a big success. This Pharcyde album is sort of halfway back to funny. And I accept the fact that they have changed as people, that they aren’t the same adolescents. But on the other hand, this album is dedicated to marijuana, so it’s not like they’ve completely grown up. The album art features the band’s visual recipe for great pot: A handful of seeds and soil, add water, add sunshine, and give it lots of love. Like I said, though, they don’t look like grow-op specialists though, they look like funeral directors.
Why can’t the Pharcyde be funny? There are ways to be funny without being stupid. George Clinton is a genius when it comes to humor in his music. So is R. Kelly. R. Kelly is a disgusting pervert with a wicked sense of humor. Kanye West is the David Sedaris of hip hop. The Pharcyde is Woody Allen, and this record is a pot smokers’ soundtrack to Shadows and Fog.