Pharoahe Monch: Desire

Pharoahe Monch

Hello. Do not attempt to adjust your Internet browser; there is nothing wrong. I have taken control so I can bring you this special review. I will return it to you as soon as you are grooving. Kick back, and dig, as I explain the freaky and habit forming funksmanship that’s comin’ to you in your eardrums.

Who am I? My name is Desire. That’s right, Desire. I am the 2007 LP from Troy Jamerson, the hyper-creative, lyrically adroit brotha you know — or you damn well need to know — as Pharoahe Monch. And I’m putting you all on notice to the fact that I’m fresh. I am a magnificent, genre-busting extravaganza specifically designed to make you think and wonder, blink and ponder, hold your head and say, “Damn,” and then pump your fist the way people did to my ancestors Knowledge Is King and Fear of a Black Planet.

I am the reflection in Ray Charles’ shades, a fingerprint on Rakim’s mic. I’m the shit, son. And that’s real. I’m your drug, baby. Inject Me. Because once you get Me in your system, I won’t let go.

Did I say I was ambitious?

Well, I am.

As my Maker, Pharoahe Monch, says in my mid-tempo title track, produced by the Alchemist, “My book is an ovary, the pages I lust to turn / My pen’s the penis; when I write, the ink’s the sperm.” True to his word, I was born in the years following my Maker’s previous creation, my older sibling Internal Affairs (1999). Before that, Pharoahe Monch was perfecting his craft alongside his partner Prince Po as one half of the bomb-dropping duo called Organized Konfusion. Pharoahe Monch created top quality music with Organized Konfusion, but none of ’em were as fly as Me.

That’s why I’m called Desire. Partly, it’s the desire to be free, whether it’s being liberated from the limitations of self-loathing, such as a young black girl’s identity crisis in “Hold On”, or from the recording industry in general, as in the Auntie Millie Jackson-sampling, gospel-soul-rock manifesto “Free”, “Your A&R’s the house n*gga, your label’s the plantation / Now switch that advance for your emancipation.” Yeah, you heard Me. Now get to switchin’.

The desire for freedom is so aptly illustrated by my album cover photo: you see Pharoahe Monch bandaged like a mummy — consumed by his raps, or “wraps”, if you will — with only his eyes showing. On the back cover, you find him without the bandages, completely uncovered and unrestrained. What resides between the extremes of bondage and autonomy — that’s the sound of my music. But, in both pictures, the intensity in his eyes, that look of hunger — that’s Desire, and that look brings to life Pharoahe Monch’s refrain in the song of my namesake, “Desire”: “You will feel me, you will admire / (my) struggle, (my) hustle, (my) soul, (my) desire.”

The jabbing delivery of that refrain reminds Me of Electric Circus‘s “Electric Wire Hustler Flower”, and I share my cousin’s thirst for musical freedom. I am an amalgam of styles, a fusion of soul, rock, gospel, and hip-hop, with horns by Tower of Power (“Push”) and glorious guitars (“Free” and the Black Milk-produced “Let’s Go”) staring down the same targets as the eye of the infamous tiger — any and all obstacles. My heavy claps, my stomping beats, and my fluttering basslines will shake your insides like a snow globe. Meanwhile, my raw, from-the-gut singing (“Desire”, “Push”) — sometimes reminiscent of K-Ci of Jodeci, sometimes like Marvin Gaye (“Trilogy”) — will tingle your spine. Pharoahe Monch himself exercises his capable singing chops on “Push” and, most interestingly, on “Body Baby”, a concoction that can best be described as “Elvis and Andre 3000 having lunch with Gnarls Barkley at a malt shop from the 1950s while watching American Bandstand“. That should get y’all hoppin’.

My freedom is a state of mind, as in the freedom to create without intervention or “shackles”. In “Free”, I mentioned how my Maker compared the recording industry to a plantation (“I railroad the underground like Harriet Tubman”). At the same time, my freedom allows you to experience my jams through different perspectives. For example, “When the Gun Draws” personifies the view of a bullet, taking out everyone from anonymous kids on street corners to “Kings in Tennessee” and “presidents in Dallas”. “Good evening,” Pharoahe Monch opens the song, “my name’s Mr. Bullet / I respond to the index when you pull it.” See? I told you I was fresh. Nobody’s safe.

Yet, even while I embody a “state of mind”, the independence “freedom” implies is best understood within the context of what preceded it. And that’s precisely why you’ll hear Me re-welcoming you to the Terrordome. Yes, Pharoahe Monch dives right into Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome” and emerges with a truly inspired re-visualization of the classic. His voice even sounds like Mista Chuck D., straining vocals and all, as he retains the basics of the original first verse and then branches into New Millennium territory in verse two. All of this happens over a stripped down, funked up and bluesy backdrop, in the vicinity of Gil Scott-Heron’s cover of Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands”.

Oh yes, I know my history and I know where I came from. It’s critical! It’s the only way I could have been made. My “Terrordome” pays homage to the past, like my west coast cousin Snoop’s “Vapors” and “Lodi Dodi”, but it inventively flips the blueprint like Uncle Ghostface did over Eric B. and Rakim’s “Know the Ledge” beat (“Ghost is Back” from my audio cousin More Fish). The singing, the soul, and the exploration of boundaries — I’m almost positive I’m distantly related to Brother Ali’s The Undisputed Truth. I’m not as introspective, not by a long shot, but I possess musical and lyrical depth.

And so, I will tell you my stories, whether it’s through the comical dialogue you find in bars (“Bar Tap”, another Black Milk production), complete with comical dialects and a Rick James-worthy vocal performance, or through the physical and mental connections of desire (“So Good”). The latter is a provocative angle on lovemaking, the softer side of Uncle L’s “Doin’ It” (doin’ it and doin’ it well!), more sensual than sexual, but still sexy. “So Good” demonstrates an understanding that less really can be more, that you can sell the steak if you let people hear the sizzle (represented by the flittering piano, you might say) but you’ve got to convince them there’s really a steak there in the first place. Pulling that off takes confidence, which is why I will also bring you stories of self-esteem and acceptance (“Hold On”).

But my masterstroke arrives at the finish, in the form of “Trilogy”, a play divided into three “acts” spanning almost ten minutes. Act I begins with what should be a happy ending to a marriage ceremony (“I now pronounce you husband and wife”), but something sinister happens thereafter. Pharoahe Monch’s description begins in a haze. Cops are in his house and his wife is bleeding. Assisted by a funky beat and fuzzy synth tones, Pharoahe’s narration is vivid and suspenseful.

In Act II, featuring Dwele, the husband chronicles his revenge, tying the shooter up, delivering a beat-less rap accompanied by a sorrowful trumpet and soulful crooning. Act III brings the conclusion, and the element of surprise, over percussion with the same fits and starts as KRS-One’s “13 and Good”, just take out the bass, add strings, and then end it with robust vocals and some marvelous piano.

“Trilogy” is an ending as unorthodox for a rap album as Mos Def’s instrumental “May-December” for Black on Both Sides, and almost as clever in its musical transitions as Erykah Badu’s “Green Eyes” at the finish of Mama’s Gun. As Pharoahe Monch rhymes about “the wicked debauchery and decadence” being “carried out in such masterful excellence” and the transformation of “murder into art”, even I have wondered about the song’s meaning. Could it be that “Trilogy” is an allegory for Pharoahe Monch’s relationship with hip-hop (personified as the cheating wife)? If so, the song’s symbolism does the opposite of my album art’s covered-to-uncovered transition, adding layers while the imagery professes to peel them away.

Overall, there are a few things you could criticize Me for. “What It Is”, situated midway in my tracklist, isn’t as thrilling as my other tunes, even with its skillful wordplay — there’s a punchline about John Ritter that seems to make people flinch. I might have been stronger with another song instead.

Then there’s length. My songs probably aren’t long enough. As soon as I get you into the groove, I move to the next track. I wouldn’t blame you if you felt like each song, aside from “Trilogy”, deserved at least another minute, and even “Trilogy” seems to go by quickly. As a result, I can accept it if you believe I, at a mere 47 minutes and some change, would have been more satisfying if I were longer. What’s more, I’m not for everyone. My musical diversity will be loved by some but despised by others who’ll say I lack focus and cohesion.

And although I think it’s a good thing that I’m devoid of guest rappers, you might find Erykah Badu’s presence in “Hold On” somewhat questionable. Not because she’s a “bad” choice, but because Erykah Badu possesses an unstoppable, uncontainable “it”-factor that takes over every project in which she’s involved. If you want a bangin’ song, get her to join you in the studio; if you don’t want her to steal your shine in a way that causes people to think it’s her song, find another collaborator. Badu is the ultimate soul sista.

But when you get right down to the nuts and bolts, there are capable emcees out there — Black Thought, Common, Kweli, Nas — but only Pharoahe Monch could’ve made Me. He is an innovator, an artist, an emcee’s emcee, capable of painting breathtaking images in a few bars, whose lyrical talent is so immense, you would forgive him for his excesses. Maybe you remember the song “Rape”, from Internal Affairs, when he said he would “take rap and chase it / to unoccupied, dimly lit staircases and rape it”. The metaphor, which consumes the entire track, is utterly foul and grotesque, demented perhaps — yet, fans and critics have recognized the song’s skill, even while they worry someone will discover it on their CD players after a car accident or plane crash and say, “Damn, what the hell was this person listening to?” The really cool PopMatters reviewer who’s helping Me speak to you finds the song “an excruciating listen”, but he’s a stickler for its “gender implications and inherent chauvinism”. Fair enough.

However, Pharoahe Monch is the hip-hop version of Italian painter Caravaggio (1571-1610), widely regarded as one of the greatest artists of his time. Don’t be surprised that I know something about fine art. That’s why they call Me a “record” — I like to keep track of things.

Caravaggio rendered real life to his canvas with uncompromising vision, intensified by his revolutionary technique of contrasting lights and darks, called “tenebrism”, to dramatize his subjects. He could paint a bowl of fruit like he was capturing the most important moment in history. Some say he was mad, based on his preference for painting quickly and directly on the canvas without preliminary sketches (y’all call it “freestylin'”), and the way he interpreted religious subjects from the perspective of everyday life, culling inspiration from people “of the streets”, including prostitutes, or supposedly using a drowned woman’s corpse as his model for Death of the Virgin‘s Virgin Mary. His art was sometimes erotic, disturbingly so, not unlike Pharoahe Monch’s own imagery, or that song “Rape” I mentioned earlier. They say Caravaggio killed a man over the score in a tennis match — and y’all thought John McEnroe was out of control! Yet, the painters of Caravaggio’s time did not hesitate to bite his style.

Is Pharoahe Monch mad? That, I cannot say. But believe Me when I tell you he is an artist of the highest order, a pioneer. And who am I? Well, I am his canvas.

RATING 8 / 10