[1 April 2008]
“Some say I’m gansta rap / Others say I’m horror core / I say I’m Suge Knight at the the ‘95 Source Awards”. Celph Titled’s distinctive voice rings out on the Ritual of Battle track “Time to Rock”, likening his own style and the unified attitude of Army of the Pharoahs to that of the infamous Death Row label head—fearless, ruthless, and taking absolutely no prisoners.
On the surface, it’s an accurate comparison for the Philadelphia-based supergroup of East coast hip-hoppers. However, Army of the Pharaohs is a bit more complex than Celph’s statement. With no less than 13 emcees given a crack at the mike on the collective’s second album, Ritual of Battle, multiply Suge’s “Did he just say that!?” factor by a baker’s dozen. Throw in the heavy, rock/metal backdrops and a drop of the occasional horrorcore flavoring of Insane Clown Posse, the upscale gangsta rap of Jay-Z, and the rapid-fire, collective think-tank stylings of Wu Tang Clan, with its myriad of members seamlessly slinging verses and blending them into masterfully cohesive tracks, and you begin to scratch the surface of Army of the Pharaohs.
Featuring members of Jedi Mind Tricks, most notably rapper Vinnie Paz, AOTP’s roll call reads like a who’s-who of underground Philly rappers, with Chief Kamachi, Reef the Lost Cauze, and hip-hop duo Outerspace on the roster. Recently returning to the fold is Paz’s former Jedi Mind Tricks cohort, Jus Allah. Having put their differences behind them, “Blue Steel” is the first collaboration between the two in years.
The remainder of the large revolving cast of Pharaohs hail from various stretches of the East Coast and include Planetary, Esoteric, Celph Titled, Demoz, and Doap Nixon, among others. While Jus Allah is back with a vengeance, several other Jedis and Pharaohs are absent from the mix. Long-running Jedi Mind Trick member Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind is M.I.A. on Ritual of Battle, and Esoteric’s partner, 7L sits this one out, as well.
Unlike the bulk of radio-ready hip-hop on the market, there’s nothing poppy about the aptly named Ritual of Battle. Undeniably catchy and a virtually flawless family portrait of East Coast underground rap, the whole of AOTP’s sophomore offering is brash and powerful. The bombastic “Frontline” rides into battle tinged with a Darth Vader-esque imperial march vibe. Backbeat-heavy drums collide with a loop of whirring electric guitar groove on “Pages in Blood”, competing with verses from Paz, Demoz, and Kamachi. Reminiscent of Jay-Z’s (at the time) ground-breaking collaborations with Linkin Park, or a really good mash-up usually reserved for underground swapping of files, the track exhibits a freshness and hard-hitting punch. The main difference is that AOTP goes it alone, without relying on an outside source to provide the searing samples on the track.
Other pieces on Ritual of Battleincorporate a variety of recognizable samples, such as the atypically low-key and introspective “Don’t Cry” with Etta James’ “Don’t Cry Baby” providing the song’s building block.
While the Pharoahs come to play hardball for the duration of the disc, at the same time, their second album doesn’t devolve into a pissing contest as to which emcee comes across as the hardest. Ritual of Battle drips with just as much explosive ammo as it does the camaraderie of brothers in arms. It’s pretty clear these guys are having fun on tracks like “Swords Drawn”, “Through Blood by Thunder”, and “Dump the Clip”. Religious and ethnic themes cut through a number of the album’s lyrics, touching upon the variety of different faiths, racial ethnicities, and religious backgrounds of AOTP’s members. An unorthodox tableau of tolerance at times, each member and creed has an equal opportunity to offend and be offended. Their approach is subtle. No matter how hard any Pharaoh may try to come across, two steps behind him is a rhyme to let us know it’s all in fun—for the most part.
While Army of the Pharaohs don’t have as much finesse as a collective like the grand Wu-Tang and their cinemascope sound, this is also AOTP’s strong suit. Ritual of Battle comes across as raw and rough around the edges. In an age of glistening, buffed to an all too bling-laden patina of overproduced and homogenized rap clap trap, it’s a breath of fresh air.