Pharoahe Monch has keep his faithful waiting for a long time. Not counting the few years spent in Organized Konfusion, Monch’s debut record was 1999’s Internal Affairs, an impressive record that displayed the best of Monch’s lyrical ability, not to mention innovative production, particularly notable for its Godzilla samples, which resulted in its being pulled from shelves. It was a hell of a way to set forth his new solo agenda, but since then, he’s kept a relatively low profile, emerging for collaborations with J Dilla and Talib Kweli now and then, or writing for Diddy. Even so, it’s by no means the substantial dose of Pharoahe needed for proper hip-hop sustenance, and if I hadn’t kept up with headlines of late, the thought of a follow-up to Affairs probably wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. After all, there’s that second Madvillain album that might not happen, but it’s only been three years since the last one, not eight.
Pharoahe has risen again, however, on his long-awaited, highly anticipated, and much needed second album, Desire. In those eight years, Monch could have given into weakness and delusions of grandeur and issued a double-album or a self-indulgent and overblown conceptual work, but he didn’t. Desire is, instead, a streamlined, solid and focused album that pressurizes Monch’s strengths into a follow-up that makes the hiatus all seem worthwhile.
A disclaimer: There is a bit of disorientation to overcome, initially, when listening to Desire, as the sequencing reveals a handful of curious moves right up front. The hard-bumping, guitar blazing “Free” and soulful “Desire” pick up momentum swiftly, Monch dropping two of his most immediately appealing new tracks right off the bat, which sounds natural enough. Then comes single “Push,” which is not only a baffling choice for radio or club play, but a weird track altogether, Monch’s rapping only entering the frame two-thirds of the way through the less than three minute song. It’s structured in a peculiar manner, sure, but Tower of Power’s horns bolster it as a soulful and free highlight. After that, however, comes a cover of Public Enemy’s “Welcome To the Terrordome” with one original Monch verse spliced in to add a personal and updated touch. It’s nice enough, but aside from a few turns of phrase, adds little, making its inclusion seem less than necessary. These tracks grow on the listener soon enough, but what makes the album so amazing are the cuts surrounding them.
With “Free” and the title track, Monch restates his mission and reminds us again why he’s both relevant and needed in today’s hip-hop climate. With extended metaphors comparing record contracts to slavery in the former and songwriting to sex in the latter (“my pen’s the penis/ my ink is the sperm…”), his lyrics are fierce, his beats are bombastic, and when combined, sound downright explosive. The minimal production of “What It Is” is another immediate highlight, the haunting ambient hum providing an eerie, yet potent bed for Monch’s humorously biting lyrics: “when they see me they say `that’s that nigga’/ my last name should be `that’s that nigga’/ sounds kinda nice, Pharoahe `That’s That…’” In the course of the same song, Monch turns rap subgenre stereotyping on its head, spitting “They thought I was backpack/ slept/ didn’t know I was keeping inside the knapsack.” This is, in turn, followed by “When The Gun Draws,” which finds Pharoahe speaking from the perspective of a bullet fired from a gun, and the energetic, cellular plan dropping standout “Let’s Go,” fueled by the hot, crackling beats of Detroit’s Black Milk.
The runaway hit on Desire is “Body Baby,” a fun, hip-swaying Elvis homage that outdoes Gnarls Barkley at their own game. With summer officially here, “Body Baby” presents the prime, hot seasonal single to usher in sweaty, carefree times. Admittedly, the album loses a bit of steam from there, with the boy-meets-girl in the club jam “Bar Tap” and the somewhat irritating sex romp “So Good,” but sandwiched between them is a slower R&B track featuring Erykah Badu titled “Hold On” that’s surprisingly vibrant, even a bit reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s mid-’70s material. And though this may not be a highly conceptual album length metaphor, the closing nine-minute “Trilogy” compresses that idea into a single track, an operatic denouement that does what “Trapped in the Closet” didn’t, and with much less absurdity and ego-stroking.
Alright, so it wasn’t so much Pharoahe himself that kept us waiting, but the messy record label fiasco that sustained Desire in its own block of carbonite. Monch himself sure wasn’t happy about it; “Free” makes that perfectly clear without hesitation. Yet Desire‘s emergence, not just in and of itself, but as one of hip-hop’s most ferociously charged releases in 2007 makes its release all the more significant. Hearing tracks like “What It Is,” “Body Baby” and “Let’s Go,” there’s no question about Monch’s volatility. With the last eight years ticking away, this sucker’s ready to blow.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.