Pharoahe Monch has trouble falling asleep these days. What's keeping him up? Hint: It's not coffee. Monch has a laundry list of worries on his mind, including myopic media, materialism, and instant gratification. W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) isn't as much about bombs and tanks as it is a declaration of war against stupidity. "Guilty as charged if intellect is a crime," he boasts on the album's title track.
W.A.R.'s most interesting quality is that it's a hit album without a hit single. It lacks a commercially viable track like "Simon Says." And while Pharoahe Monch may have finally embraced the fact that he'll never be a chart force, the thought of being one of the all-time greats without a medal still keeps him up at night. "No justice, no peace, no settle. We are renegades, f-ck your gold medal," he barks. Elsewhere on "Evolve" he says: "There's no Grammy to show for the love people hand me on the street."
Another source of insomnia for Monch? Industry-run radio. "F-ck radio if the people can't pick and choose," he snarls on the Immortal Technique-assisted "W.A.R." Yet, none of those worries seem to derail Monch from tossing barbs at his real target: police brutality, institutional racism, and social irresponsibility. Pretty much everything he's been railing against since his Organized Konfusion days. Same war, different era.
No song better encapsulates the Queens lyricist's artistic mission than "Let My People Go." Orchestral strings back Monch as he chants the familiar bible verse with the vocal cadence of a minister. "Let My People Go" is an instant gem not because of its lyrical ferocity or its spiritual undertones, but because it blends both without any hint of corniness.
Musically, W.A.R. is solid and sinewy. Producers Exile, Marco Polo, Diamond D, and others concoct robust beats that augment Pharoahe's bow-tie flow. The album combines first-rate rhymes with rich, soulful vocals and rarely veers off that formula. Even the occasional rock foray "The Grand Illusions" is well-executed.
Those who get paid to peruse rap for the slightest iota of generalizations and simplification will dismiss Monch's latest effort as an empty beau geste that achieves nothing in the end. Sure, it's not as perfectly nuanced as, say, a David Simon play. It's not the hip-hop version of a King speech, but that's missing the point entirely. Pharoahe Monch and other socially conscious MCs are aware that one rhyme won't save the world. Like Chuck D and others before him, Monch's greatness lies in his ability to vocalize the pain of the hood with authentic firepower and earnest depth. That's what makes him a poet.
You can debate Pharoahe's intent, but you can't deny his execution. Whether he's painting a vivid portrait of a modern day revolution on "Calculated Amalgamation" or lambasting payola on "The Hitman," Monch is always stunning. His rich vocal inflections, crawling wordplay and unexpected metaphors make him one of the all-time greats.
Pharoahe Monch may never be a staple on 106 & Park, but he's secured membership in a cult of a different kind. He's part of an special group of commercial castoffs. Names like Immortal Technique, MF Doom, The Roots and, of course, Pharoahe Monch always command respect in the streets even if they're only moving wood in the hood. Monch, in particular, is on a short list of MCs other MCs turn to for lessons on mic mastery.
W.A.R. sounds like an album Pharoahe Monch always wanted to get out of his system. But I doubt that the catharsis will cure him of his insomnia. If he wants my advice, it's this: refrain from watching TV before bed.Best Tracks:
- "Calculated Amalgamation"
- "Black Hand Side" (Feat. Styles P & Phonte)
- "Shine" (Feat. Mela Machinko)
- "Let My People Go"