[30 March 2011]
Like Desire before it, We Are Renegades (W.A.R. for short) is a departure from what the audience expects from Pharoahe Monch. After four years of waiting, perhaps that’s to be expected and, in fact, invited. As much if not more so than any other genre, hip-hop is dictated by fast-moving trends and fresh sounds, but Monch has never been known to hurry himself. It took him eight years to eschew the jazzy NYC backdrops of his ‘90s heyday and release a soulful follow-up to Internal Affairs that involved ample doses of Detroit-cooked soul and funk instead.
W.A.R. only took four years to reach the masses, but unlike Desire doesn’t follow anything particularly critically acclaimed. Instead, W.A.R. attempts to capitalize on the fear and paranoia of the 21st century’s mass media machine, and puts forth this effort on a backdrop of gaudy post-boom bap, faux revival nonsense. Yes, it’s true. Thanks to mid-grade beatsmiths like M-Phazes and 10 for the Triad, nonames like Lion’s Share Music Group and Mike Loe, and even current all-stars Exile and Marco Polo, Pharoahe Monch and Duck Down have collaborated to release the unthinkable: a bafflingly weak Pharoahe Monch album.
First of all, I have nothing against rappers addressing politics in their music. After all, Chuck D once dubbed it the “Black CNN”, and all too many rappers ignore the issues of the world in order to focus on themselves. However, the number of artists who can properly tackle these issues is about as numerous as political channel pundits—very few. Most of the time, especially in the case of title track guest Immortal Technique, artists quickly devolve their arguments into a series of conspiracy theories and baseless claims that ring about as supple as any random whack MC dissing. If any artist might seem intelligent enough to make a political album that works, one would assume it’s Pharoahe Monch.
After all, as one half of Organized Konfusion the guy wrote and produced two incredibly strong concept albums (Stress and Equinox). But outside of “Evolve” and “Still Standing”, W.A.R.‘s only total shining moments, Monch uses his still-distinctive voice to dumb his flow down even further than Desire. And when he’s not railing against the Iraq war, he’s throwing light jabs at current popular rappers that feel old and bitter, as fans of the current mainstream might expect from a rapper nearing his 40s. He makes good points about the media revolution of the internet, such as when he notes “When the Gun Draws” reached 1,000,000 views on YouTube without major label assistance, but for the most part his lyrics are preaching to the choir.
I don’t really mean to emphasize that Monch hurts this album, though, because his contributions are disappointing by Monch standards, but still worthy of a decent album. No, the negativity is aimed mostly at the producers and guest artists that fill out the record. Immortal Technique is an obvious mistake, even though he sounds better than perhaps he ever has thanks to Marco Polo (although his beat is shockingly boring by his standards and the superfluous guitar solo tacked onto the end is just bafflingly unnecessary). And shockingly dull is essentially the story of every beat here sans Exile’s. There’s a brief middle section consisting of “Clap (One Day)” and “Black Hand Side” (wherein Styles P delivers a surprising verse that ranks among the LP’s best) that feel comforting, if not wholly unsurprising for a Duck Down record, but as W.A.R. rounds into its second half things consistently fall apart into disappointment.
Monch’s albums have always been notable for their music almost as much as their lyrics, but W.A.R. doesn’t satisfy on that count. The production here feels more worthy of blogosphere rappers than a legend like Monch, laced with simple two- and four-bar loops and drab, meaningless soul choruses. It’s not fundamentally bad music, but rather so underwhelming and disappointing considering Monch’s track record with his own production and the stuff he customarily procures from others. “The Grand Illusion” is particularly confusing, since you’re pretty much just listening to Citizen Cope sing over a King Crimson sample most of the time.
I’ll admit that I’m being more negative about W.A.R. than it might deserve. Sometimes, as when I sat down to write this review, I find myself enjoying this album in very basic ways (ie. oh, Pharoahe Monch is rapping). But on others, I’ve sat in overwhelmed confusion as to how an album that took four years to make from an artist notorious for making not just decent, but great music can put out an album so overwhelmingly run-of-the-mill. It feels in many ways like watching an Alex Rodriguez playoff performance; the talent may be right in front of your face and evident, but the results consistently underperform against those expectations.
On its own merits removed from the Pharoahe Monch timeline W.A.R. could perhaps be considered satisfying, slotted comfortably in between your Supastition, Classified and D. Black albums. But to put it simply and with no offense intended towards those guys, Monch’s not exactly an MC that’s easily compared to those artists. Monch’s discography has very few dud tracks period, but now that W.A.R. is out the majority of those tracks rest here. W.A.R. is not necessarily a death knell for Monch, he’s simply too talented for that. But it’s definitely not an album that feels like it took four years to make, either. If Monch’s preparing to slip into the typical realm of complacency that plagues rappers in their 30s and 40s, he’s certainly earned it. It’s just a little sad to hear.