Beats & Rhymes: Pharoahe Monch’s WAR (We Are Renegades)

Each Monday, Beats & Rhymes highlights a new and notable hip-hop, rap, DJ, or electronic record that embraces independent sensibilities.

Pharoahe Monch: We Are RenegadesPharoahe Monch: WAR (We Are Renegades) (Duck Down, 3/22/11)

Pharoahe Monch: “Black Hand Side”

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Hip-hop veteran Pharoahe Monch is a lyrical force of nature, with an ability to rap complex rhymes with a muscular, rhythmic, and seemingly effortless flow. Even after 20 years, the quality of his three albums with Prince Poetry (as part of Organized Konfusion) hasn’t been diminished.

His first solo LP in 1999, Internal Affairs, was a more thug-inspired record that saw Monch making a significant move towards mainstream success, until legal battles over lead single “Simon Says” and its unlicensed Godzilla sample torpedoed its climb. Monch laid relatively low for the next eight years, releasing occasional singles and guest spots before presenting the soulful and inspired Desire in 2007.

Thankfully, he didn’t make the world wait as long for his third solo album, WAR (We Are Renegades).  On his latest, Monch doesn’t waste time reaffirming his place as one of the genre’s best, frequently employing polysyllabic rhymes and repeated sounds that move beyond the simple AABB end rhymes on which many rappers lean. He boasts about this on the standout “Evolve,” describing himself as “The anomaly / your mama nominated me phenomenal / I dominated without a six-pack abdominal.” The machine-gun assonance on display here is just one example of the lyrical complexity that Monch brings to the record.

The few featured guests on the album, including Jean Grae, Immortal Technique, and Styles P, perform admirably and are used sparingly enough to avoid guest-rapper bloat. A verse by Royce Da 5’9” on “Assassins” is uncomfortably misogynistic — unfortunate given the cleverness of his lyricism. It’s strange that a rapper as admittedly elitist as Monch would approve of such regressive content.

Heavy rock guitars are a major presence throughout, thanks to some guest riffage by Living Colour’s Vernon Reid and Citizen Cope, and it’s a major change for Monch. Thankfully, they are mixed subtly enough that the songs avoid becoming rap-rock abominations and instead sound natural next to Monch’s righteous indignation. Other beats, like those found on “Black Hand Side” and “Haile Side Karate,” fail to impress, but background singers like Mr. Porter and Mela Machinko help to fill out the tracks. Monch has never consistently had the chance to rap over hip hop’s upper-echelon production, but the beats on WAR are serviceable enough to deliver his rhymes to the listener.

The album’s ostensible concept, established on the opening skit featuring The Wire star Idris Elba, is that the record is a warning transmission from a not-too-distant future dominated by a totalitarian, thought-controlling government, and the listeners are renegades genetically predisposed to receive said transmission and save the world. This concept gives Monch free reign to rant against what he considers the beginnings of the horrific future.

On paper, this sounds like a high-concept departure from Monch’s usual fare, but the songs don’t actually seem very far removed from the bulk of his oeuvre. “Clap (One Day)” is based on several instances of policemen accidentally killing innocent people, but the themes that Monch raises about the dangers of random gun violence are similar to his previous songs “Stray Bullet” and “When the Gun Draws.” “The Hitman” criticizes the injustices of the record industry, something that Monch has been doing for decades.

Lyrics like “If y’all are telling me today’s music is suitable and appealing / then I’m telling you the feelings are not mutual,” from “Let My People Go,” amaze when delivered in Monch’s crisp staccato, but he has been making similar statements about the state of hip hop for years — see “a million MCs and they ain’t saying nothing” from 11-year-old track “Rape.”

Monch is tackling these issues from different angles, with new metaphors and rhymes that are as technically dazzling as ever. Whereas Internal Affairs was an explosive solo debut, and Desire was a long-awaited revelation, WAR has less flash and adornment to distinguish it from the pack upon first listen. But Monch’s verbal skills remain as strong as ever, and his fans are unlikely to be disappointed.

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