Review Summary: After a slew of recent landmark releases should Pharoahe be Worried About Relevancy?
And the simple answer is yes, but Monch really only has himself to blame for this. Maybe it’s the fickle nature of hip hop fans (hell, fans of music in general), but when any artist displays a penchant for extended periods of silence between releases it’s understandable to expect their fans to want something a little better than simply a “good” album to be at the tail end of nearly four years of relative silence (bar a few guest spots). But Pharoahe has earned the right to be a little more reserved in his approach, in fact I think any artist who gets to spend as many years in the game as Monch deserves to take as long as they wish to get the job done. But despite Pharoaohe’s now legendary status, the world of hip hop can’t just take a break and wait for him to catch up. A lot’s changed in the game since Desire
dropped, some four years ago. And to be fair, Phaoroahe has made an admirable effort at keeping up with the times; in fact We Are Renegades
boasts some of the greatest beats so far this year, and some of the freshest of Monch’s career. But it all seems just a little bit tuned down, a little under-played. It almost seems that in racing to keep up with the lightning quick pace of the musical scene Pharoahe has lost sight of what hip hop used to ultimately be about, what he
used to ultimately be about.
It’s almost funny that we, the hip hop fans, almost have to rely on the artists’ ability to make a spectacle of themselves so we can accurately gauge them, or at least assume that we can properly get a handle on them. Kanye revealed his ultimate motivations without even needing a studio around him, and Eminem did the same by disappearing entirely for awhile before shamefacedly returning in an attempt to reclaim his spoils. Pharoahe is a little bit harder to read simply because he lets his rhymes speak for himself, so in today’s modern hip hop world of jail time and award festival hijackings he’s something of an enigma. One of the last true old-schoolers left, still (moderately) working at a full-time pace. So while adapting this loose concept of a veteran now at war with hip hop’s modern approach (if your imagination is vivid enough to conjure up a tentative link between “renegade” and “underground veteran”), W.A.R.
is essentially Monch’s battle cry, his war declaration and battle summons. But he doesn’t really have it in him anymore to be so vitriolic, he’s never really been about that (in his solo career at least), and it seems a little out of place and a touch misguided to be delving into pseudo hip hop gratuity when he’s this long in the tooth. This is really the ultimate deterrent against this album, because while it is still a great album in many respects, it’s also his weakest effort yet.
Take ‘Calculated Amalgamation’ for example. The clattering beat of hyper-intense percussion and rising and swelling chords serve well as a perfect introduction, but the fact of the matter is that it’s all just a little too much. It’s a rousing number but it doesn’t serve as the perfect foundation for Pharoahe’s somewhat laid back flow. Truth be told, he even sounds a little lazy, and occasionally at a loss with how to handle such a visceral beat. But he wastes no time in picking shots at his more famous compatriots by taking a stab at any artist lucky enough to snag themselves an award when he sneers “we are renegades, f
uck your gold medals
". And it’s a line that sticks out straight away, because it’s a style that doesn’t suit Monch’s smooth delivery at all, in fact it comes off as nothing more than a pointless pot shot at anyone who sold their soul for a little pop inclination. Initial mis-step aside, he redeems himself on ‘Evolve’ with both stunning word delivery and an intense beat courtesy of Exile. But clocking in at under three minutes, the track ends far too abruptly. To be fair, there really isn’t a great deal more that Monch could’ve done with any over time, but you get the feeling that someone just pulled the plug just as he was warming up.
“We went from ni
ggers to porch monkeys to negros to blacks back to ni
ggers again, but
niggers is still hungry
Despite the fact that ‘Clap (One Day)’ has already done the rounds for awhile now it deserves another mention simply because it serves as the point where Monch finally settles into a sweet spot and starts to regress back to his more on-point musings. Bolstered by another retro pilfering M-Phazes beat Pharoahe delivers possibly his best performance of the album, with the acapella finale remaining one of the album’s most inspired pieces. He almost matches that performance on the Horton-assisted ‘Let My People Go’, where he raps a lyrical and breathless maze over the organ based beat, and drops the gems “If ya’ll are telling me today’s music is suitable and appealing then I’m telling you the feeling’s are not mutual
” and “And if you’re wondering what’s under my robe, a old rusty ass 38 snub nose, and just in case you’re thinking my sh
it don’t work go on and try to rob my church
”. ‘Shine’ is a bore sadly, with Monch just seeming lost in the off-kilter beat. He gives just about as much as Diamond D’s beat allows him to get away with, the initially charming background chimes quickly end up as a huge annoyance thanks to any lack of variation or creativity. Monch redeems himself on the mellow and chilled out funk mashup of follow up ‘Haile Selassie Karate’ though, but he doesn’t come anywhere near replicating the success of ‘Clap’ until ‘Assassins’ rolls around. And even though Monch is given plenty to work with thanks to possibly the best beat of the entire album (not surprisingly another M-Phazes joint), and even though Royce da 5’9’ raps circles around the constantly evolving background, it’s Jean Grae who steals the show, and gives off possibly the best performance of the whole album. If there wasn’t any hype surrounding her beforehand, there’s certainly going to be more than a few calls for an album in the wake of W.A.R.
’s release. ‘Still Standing’ rounds out the album, and it’s the typical kind of song you could see any hip hop artist bouncing along too while in the back of a convertible driving down any nondescript highway located near any of a hundred beaches in the ever popular identical hip hop music video. It’s inoffensive enough, and somewhat charming in its radio attention grabbing hopes, but it’s also possibly the weakest way to end an album so intent with its blue collar manifesto and confrontational aspirations. But hey, you gotta make money while the sun shines.
So all in all, We Are Renegades
has about as much going for it as it does against it. As bull headed as it attempts to be, there’s still something resembling Pharoahe’s illustrious past buried deep inside it. It is his weakest effort, but when you’re working against a career as critically adored as Monch’s you can expect such things. It’s hit and miss more times that I think anyone was really hoping for, but when it hits it still hits as hard as when Monch was cutting his teeth back in the Organized Konfusion days. But he still misses the mark, and a little too frequently to be honest. When as before he sounded fresh and ready to turn heads, here it’s a little more cartoonish, a little too much hot air and swagger. Maybe 20 years in the business didn’t get him to the spot he was hoping to be at by this point? But when you limit yourself to three albums in thirteen years (almost unheard of in hip hop circles) you’re going to have to deal with some blowback, no matter what the name on the album cover is. My only real concern is how long are we going to have to wait for a follow up?