W.A.R. (We Are Renegades)
(Duck Down Music; 2011)
By Chet Betz | 12 April 2011
Pharoahe Monch is not just some other rapper. For your review I submit the sub-title track off Organized Konfusion’s Stress: The Extinction Agenda (1994): Monch plays chess with your mind, wins in about five swift moves, and concludes “I’m surgin’ up when I’m emergin’.” A couple bars later he adds, almost as an afterthought, “I’m the assassinator of rap.” Blessed with one of the most original flows in rap history, an expressive barrage matched only by the mental pyrotechnics that birth its blasts, Monch mauls rap form and remakes it according to his singular dictation; his flow is an aesthetic unto itself—inimitable (though Diddy has tried) and absolute. This is a rapper that destroys rap.
2007’s Desire was a return after a long hiatus that, though scattered in its styles and focus, still had a lot of Monch destroying rap on it (see “What It Is”) whenever he wasn’t plumbing some neo-soul territory (and that he even did sometimes gainfully, as on the one-two of the title track and “Push”). W.A.R. seems like an attempt on Monch’s part to re-focus on rap and to firmly plant himself in opposition to mainstream media (check “The Hitman” or the Steve Rifkind diss on “Shine”), what with the bidding war for his services that went on before Desire dropped and then Monch finding himself opting out of the services of a Universal Motown subsidiary in Rifkind’s SRC (so, W.A.R. being released on “W.A.R. Media” via Duck Down) after Desire semi-flopped—17,026 copies sold in the U.S. and one of them’s mine! But with that mission in mind and Idris Elba kicking off W.A.R. with “The Warning,” some cryptic shit about corruption and conspiracy, Monch sounds a little deflated by his own righteous hubris. Which is probably why in a recent interview with Rap Pages Monch declares, “In the future I will probably have a club record.”
If nothing else Desire had a fitting title, Monch enraptured by the fact that he was finally putting out a new record and fully investing himself into whatever niche he happened to be satisfying with any given track. But, aside from the Cee-Lo biting that started on Desire with “Body Baby” and continues here with “Let My People Go,” W.A.R. is pretty much a straight-up underground rap album to the point of sounding like pretty much any other underground rap album with a bit of shine too it. Monch is the obvious difference and it’s this dynamic between the ordinary context and the extraordinary artist that always leaves me thinking this record is disappointing until I’m actually listening to it, finding myself caught up in Monch’s craft. But even that craft lacks the force it once had. It doesn’t help that half the time Monch sounds like he’s at “war” with the production, bombastic cuts like “Calculated Amalgamation” and the title track surely intending to get us amped but their live drums, orchestral hits, and squealing electric guitars barely giving Monch’s flow enough room to blossom even as we miss the fact that he’s still saying some brilliant shit (“I am equipped with a better memory chip than dolphins / With more keys to open more doors than four foremans to executive rooms where they’re walkin’ on all fours / lead / Canines standing upright amongst you.”
Back on Stress volumes of anger and lament were expressed with a peerless intensity all while the music rarely rose above a brooding simmer. There was true tension between the black canvas of the beats and fiery sparks of the rhymes. Amidst the myriad of things attempted by the jubilant Desire “What It Is” was probably the only track that went that route; on W.A.R. we are blessed by another brief glimpse of what that style would look like today in the record’s peak of “Shine” and “Haile Selassie Karate.” On the former Diamond D minimally bolsters a xylophone loop with bass blurts and sharp drums, providing the necessary space for Monch to get insane—a recurring motif throughout the raps is a squeal-like rise in the intonation at the end of bars, paid off in full in the second verse where Monch states “put a little bass in my voice like pitch-bend” then immediately squeaks out the next line. On the latter you would swear Flying Lotus was on the boards, so it only makes sense that if he’s not then FlyLo colleague Samiyam is, and thus the track indirectly answers the difficult question of what kind of rapper could rip a FlyLo beat. Monch is that kind of rapper. And it makes sense—they’re both powerful deconstructionists of the genre they love.
Ultimately, that is the problem with most of W.A.R., though. Monch is so busy adopting the typical backpacker agenda of putting himself at odds with the mainstream that he takes steps towards a new conformity instead of just destroying shit. Jean Grae and Royce da 5’9” sound fine on “Assassins,” yet another garish track with loud guitars, but Monch sounds out of place, like he’s trying too hard to fit in with the underground when he’s a revolutionary that stands with Prince Po or alone. And then on the next track rife with drum fills and angel choirs Citizen Cope croons the hook and reminds me of how much I hate it when Citizen Cope rhymes things. Just let the drummer kick, man. But, in a way, I can say the same for Monch. Get over this “W.A.R.” shit and stop pounding on the doors of the industry. Stop talking about how you might make a club record. Just keep the beats real and then do your thing because that thing is beautiful and one-in-a-billion. Other rappers have to figure out ways to get attention or how to market themselves or what scene they belong in. Pharoahe Monch is not just some other rapper.