Review Summary: The Egyptian monarch's long awaited sophomore album delivers an old-school jaunt of epic proportions. Simon says get the **** into Desire.
Living through high-profile guest appearances and a mixtape in the 8 year gap between his 1999 debut Internal Affair
and the long delayed Desire
, Pharoahe Monch has always teetered between the underground and mainstream. Gaining steam as the star MC in the seminal underground duo Organized Konfusion throughout the 90s, by the time his surprise ‘99 hit “Simon Says” came along, pounding its iconic horn intro and pleas for girls to “rub on their titties,” he was already well-known for his zigzagging rhyme complexity and rapid delivery. Unusual for an indie single to crack the Billboard’s Top 100, Pharoahe was ready for Egyptian deity status. But record label battles for Monch soon began, and a second album wouldn’t begin to materialize until 2005, with more delays to follow. But finally getting Desire
, it’s easy to see that Pharoahe doesn’t care about whatever expectations his different audiences set for him, or that he wasn’t able to capitalize on Simon Says. As soon as Desire
begins, Pharoahe is determined to unify a fresh, new sound and conceptual goals with little compromise compared to most rappers out there right now.
is very much an “album” album, weaving parts of the album together thematically and/or musically, leaving Pharoahe like a kid in a candy store. Long known as one of hip hop’s most technically skilled and all-around developed MCs, he shows a harnessed versatility and diversity never seen before. The first couple of tracks start off the album with a triumphant celebration of freedom and ambition, with lines like, “I’m slave to my label, but I own my master” and the chorus to the horn-blasted Free
“spit in my face, hold me down/I keep my feet firm to the ground ‘cuz I’m free” Monch not only shows scorn against the labels that held his career back, but also foreshadows the many social issues he dives into as the record progresses.
With Pharoahe Monch’s string of positive opening tracks the earthly, old school feel of the album comes head on. Free
kick starts the album after the gospel choir intro to the album with a kick of horns and scattered guitar string bends, but what really gives the authentic feel is the handful of singers Monch employs for the hooks and chorus (including one appearance from Erykah Badu.) However, as the album kicks into Welcome to the Terrordome
, Pharoahe becomes more of his motor-mouthed self, and the album begins to equilibrate between the glimmer of hope that the beginning of the album, and the stark realism and conspiracy theories. Though the near schizophrenic mood of What it is
eschews bouncy horns and R&B croons for a monotone synth and mechanical noise blurbs, reminiscent of his older, menacing tracks like Hell
, even the most old-fashioned tracks feature some modern computer farts Pharoahe’s fond of. Body Baby
is an Elvis-esque rock jaunt with vocal samples and a synth riff playing off the traditional sounds of the honky-tonk piano, reverb loaded organ, and even a Chuck Berry
-like breakdown and guitar solo.
Pharoahe shows his mastered skill at characterization and metaphor mixed with cold humour like never before on When the Gun Draws
, rapping in the point of view from a bullet. Resembling some sort of fu
cked up fable, reminisces about all the death he’s caused, discusses “what really happened on the grassy knoll,” with the clinkering piano and gunshot sounds giving an increasing nightmarish feel. His lyrical magnum opus on the album, however, comes with the three act, nine minute Trilogy
, a story about a best friend’s betrayal that ended up with both the main character’s wife, and the best friend dead. As it begins in Act 1, Pharoahe raps about the bodies being taken away in a disheveled, broken manner as if he has no idea what happens. From there he steadies himself a bit and recollects everything that happens in the following two acts, the scenes range from his insane confrontation with his best friend to surreal musings of his destiny, and actions. The transitions of mood and scenario are tempered with soulful, swirling, and ghoulish instrumentals that almost mirror prog rock.
is unencumbered by skits and filler that plague many hip hop albums, making its steadily paced vision of ambition, insanity, and justice easy to sit through. There are occasional missteps, though, like letting the musical side of the album overreach and doddle at times. The overbearing presence of the vocalists in the beginning songs of the album makes for a slower pace compared to the rest of the record. Pharoahe blunders on Bar Trap
, a typical rapper picks up a girl at a bar and “gets wit’ it” track, and the beat doesn’t interlock with Monch as well as the other songs. Still, the mummified rapper breaks new ground and delivers one of 2007’s best.