With his high-voltage energy and multi-syllabic rhyme repertoire, Pharoahe Monch has earned the utmost of respect and accolades in hip-hop's underground subculture. This feat is dwarfed by the mere fact that he's only got one solo album in his growing discography - an album that was released all the way back in 1999!
The Sound of Freedom
Poignant and uplifting, Desire begins with a choir's rendition of the Negro Spiritual "Oh Freedom." The Black Milk-produced "Intro" is a masterfully executed preface, which efficiently sets the tone for the rest of the album. Though the topics discussed on Desire are diverse in content, the album preserves an underlying atmosphere throughout, one of a sense of renewal and freedom. In many ways a concept album, Desire embraces various sound textures that effectively balance Pharoahe's trademark grittiness with soulful qualities and expressions. A smooth blend of genres as distinct as gospel and rock is evidenced by the transition between the soulful a capella "Intro" and the drum-heavy, riff-laden anthem "Free." In fact, anthem is a word that could be used to describe many of Desire's tracks, as the well-conceived genre-meshing continues. Better known for painting dark and grimy soundscapes, Alchemist is called on to produce the title-track, "Desire." A soulful, head bopping composition, Al's production acumen matches Pharoahe's mic presence, as he attentively spits: "Rap's fatally ill, please get concerned."
Message in the Music
An intelligent emcee with a passionate heart, Pharoahe Monch liberally tackles topical social issues throughout Desire, but also dedicates entire songs to specific themes. A perfect example of this is "Welcome to the Terrordome," a cover of the similarly-titled Public Enemy classic. While Pharoahe's first verse is a nearly word-by-word performance of Chuck D's original, the second verse reflects on current events in society. A fist-pumping anthem, "Terrordome" finds Comandante Monch seething his fury towards the unwarranted murders of Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo, the threats of terrorism at home and abroad, corruption, imperialism and world domination, greed and hypocrisy. Intended to be released on his 2003 album, Pharoahe vents more of his political frustrations on the Sa-Ra-laced track "Agent Orange." Completed during the early stages of the war in Iraq, "Agent Orange" prophetically addresses the conflict with the urgency it commands today, as Pharoahe throws around puns: "I threw a rock (Iraq) and I ran (Iran)."
With his perspective on martyrdom and its significant and unfortunate correlation with hip-hop, Pharoahe leads a campaign geared towards gun policy change on "When the Guns Draws." Produced by D-12's Mr. Porter, "Gun Draws" finds Pharaohe creatively speaking from the perspective of a bullet: "When I kill kids they say shame on me/ Who the f**k told you to put their names on me!?/" Serious about his convictions, Pharoahe has even authored his own website, explicitly addressing the matter. Check it out at Gundraws.com.
A Desire for Experimenting
But don’t pigeonhole Pharoahe as that "underground, political rapper" just yet! When you thought you'd heard it all, along comes Pharoahe Monch with his Elvis-esque 50's swing-influenced bopper "Body Baby." Don’t get it twisted: you’re still listening to the same album! A throwback to the good ol' days, "Body Baby" fits well with the album, as Pharoahe demonstrates his confidence and musical maturity. A gutsy move for most rappers to even consider, "Body Baby" exemplifies Pharoahe Monch's progressive outlook on hip-hop as an evolving culture and art form.
Such is the case with "Trilogy," a cinematic tale which can be interpreted in different ways. At a basic level, "Trilogy" is merely a story of a love gone sour. However, the song(s) can also be seen as a historical outlook on hip-hop, reminiscent of Common's "I Used to Love H.E.R." I'll leave the lyrical dissecting and analyzing up to you... Monch drops plenty of hints in there, proving (as if he still needs to) that he can not only be clever with the vocab, but imaginative and inventive with it as well.
On "Push," Monch "rides the bassline like Ginobili" (my mandatory Spurs shout-out) as he spits swiftly and with ease on the track's sole rap verse. Never compromising his lyrical dexterity, he finds himself riding shotgun in the presence of the album's various R&B artists, "Push" being one of these examples. Effectively, this approach doesn't take away from Pharoahe's shine, and in fact compliments his sketchy style.
The Bottom Line on Desire
A great accomplishment for Pharoahe Monch, the production team at SRC Records, and everyone else who was involved, Desire is a solid, filler-free album from start to finish. Pharoahe does an outstanding job of opening up to a wider venue while retaining his core audience and preserving his image: a feat many fellow emcees strive to accomplish (while still heralded as fan favorites, Mos Def and Talib Kweli come to mind). Definitely an album-of-the-year contender, Desire is a mature hip-hop record, crucial during a time in which nearly half the individuals on radio have names that either begin with "Lil" or "Young." Hopefully we won't have to wait another eight years for Pharoahe's next contribution.Top Tracks: