Who would have thought, that one winter in 1999, the biggest commercial hip-hop single in New York City was by Pharoahe Monch, ï¿½ of defunct backpack duo, Organized Konfusion. Call it a fluke, or call it payola, but “Simon Says” Godzilla stomped its way onto the charts, help making his solo debut, Internal Affairs, an underground classic. But after a hush-hush legal mess with Toho (the Japanese film studio that owns the rights to the Godzilla sample used on “Simon Says”), the album was prematurely pulled from shelves.
For the last few years, Pharoahe had been courted by Shady Records after his Rawkus deal ended, but ultimately signed with SRC Records, headed by original Loud Records founder, Steve Rifkind. With his new album, “Desire”, Pharoahe hopes to recapture some of the commercial success he found with his debut, despite an eight-year hiatus.
Always one to change up his style, Pharoahe attempts to show more diversity with Desire, expanding his musical style in several different directions. The first single, “Push”, suggested this, as Pharoahe (along with vocalists Showtyme and MeLa Machinko) flexes his singing skills, with his rap lyrics taking second stage. The follow-up single, “Body Baby” also attempts at crossover play, as he adapts a sort of Elvis Presley-styled hook, mixed with raps, over a bouncy track reminiscent of Will Smith’s “Switch”. With the popularity of songs like Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc” and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”, it’s pretty obvious what he’s going for here - but sadly neither of these songs are catchy as the songs they emulate.
Thankfully, for the much of the rest of the album, Pharoahe Monch sticks to what he’s good at - making conceptual hip-hop songs. He continues his ongoing message about gun control (first started way back on Orgnaized Konfusion’s “Stray Bullet”) with “As The Gun Draws”; a Dr. Dre influenced Denaun Porter produced track that gives you an idea of what this album might have sounded like under the Shady Records banner. The topic of guns is also brought up later on the album’s dark closer, “Trilogy”, which finds Monch caught red handed over the dead bodies of his wife and his best friend. This nine minute track tends to drag on a bit, with three different verses over three different beats (produced by Denaun, Dwele, and Tone, respectively), with each verse talking to a different person (himself, his best friend, and his wife). While on one hand, it’s appreciated that forward thinking, creatively driven hip-hop is still being made in today’s major label market, in terms of playtime, it ends up taking up 1/5 of the album.
Still, Pharoahe is a compelling lyricist, and when the production and song structure is on the level of his rhymes, the results are excellent. Case in point is the “Ms. Fat Booty”-esque narrative “Bar Tap”, which is a classic head-nodder that sounds right out of the Rawkus era. Meanwhile, “Hold On” is a thoughtful biographical song about a girl coming to terms with the beauty of her skin color, with a hook by Erykah Badu. The sultry “So Good” also works, finding Pharoahe getting his dirty talk on, over a smoothed out, self-produced beat.
But the album’s two crown jewels are also its biggest weaknesses. Monch’s reworking of Public Enemy’s “Welcome To The Terrordome” is excellent, with a new beat by Grind Music, however it doesn’t look good when one of your best album cuts is a cover. Secondly, the excellent commentary on the Bush Administration, “Agent Orange” is perhaps the album’s most poignant track, but don’t look for it on the U.S. release ï¿½ it’s a U.K. only bonus track. And, to add insult to injury, it was released four years ago on a Rawkus 12inch single. Ouch.
Sounds like we are picking apart Pharoahe’s latest opus, but to be fair, this is more or less a solid record. However, the main problem with it is that it lacks the focus of Internal Affairs, as it tries to please several different audiences at once, but ends up sounding like a jumbled mess of different sounds and styles. Despite these gripes, there’s still a little something for everyone on this record, but most fans will be only be keeping a few select tracks in their Ipod library.
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