Tuesday, December 25, 2007

PHAROAHE MONCH — DESIRE

PHAROAHE MONCH — DESIRE

There's nothing wrong with dropping a solid. There are plenty of artists we all wish had done just that from time to time. Of course, once we get a solid, we're bound to wish it was even better. Desire is such a solid. It's a good album, with very few weaknesses, but it's also not a great album with plenty of epiphanies.

In a lot of ways, it's reminiscent of the albums put out by its patron saint, KRS-1. Pharoahe has put out the sort of album full of the consciousness that people attracted to that first will cause them to exclaim that the album is "real hiphop" or such blather. There's no bling, no nerd obsessions, no mysogyny or outright homophobic epithets. The rhymes can be clever without drifting into surrealism, and they don't exist just for the sake of rhyme, but to stay on message. Pharoahe also streamlines his flow and stays mostly within a punctuated staccato, less interested in rhythmic gymnastics or in latching onto faddish styles (with a couple notable exections). This does give most of the songs an evenness of delivery and a consistency, but that only becomes a problem over an extended period of time.

To his credit, Pharoahe keeps the album short (much like albums from the eighties) and tops it off at under the 48-minute mark. Unfortunately, the lack of variety still makes the album feel a little longer than it is. But, before sagging a bit in the middle, Pharoahe includes enough strong tracks that really rate.

After the short, gospel intro that is to be commended for not be a skit and acting as an actual intro, Pharoahe comes in hard with with a heagy, deliberate beat that provides a strong backbone to his declaration of freedom. It's worth noting that this is probably one of the last tracks to be recorded, since it makes specific reference to the label problems that kept Desire on the shelf. Normally, I'd be put off by a track so focussed on complaints about A&R reps and publishing rights — the underground's equivalent to pop music's bitch sessions about celebrity (oh, boo-hoo!) — but Pharaohe isn't pulling a Kanye or a Lindsey Lohan here and creating a radio hit that contdradicts his words. Instead, he's just coming in hard and reminding us why we loved him in Organized Konfusion and why we've missed his voice for 8 years (!).

Then we head into the title track that threatens to turn the entire album into hard-hitting complaints about A&R. But he manages to transcend that by crafting a track more universal in its attempt to talk about artistic struggle and all the forces that work against it. Also, Pharoahe is still coming in strong, and I'd take an entire album of record label complaints if they were all this much fun to listen to (are you listening Prince Paul?).

In a lot of ways, the first four tacks of Desire recalls Talib Kweli's Quality, in its use of well-selected samples and beats with a strong central voice. Pharoahe opens up his criticisms to the political on Push which never gets bogged down in its own message. And then we move into the most interesting track on the album: a cover/update of Public Enemy's Welcome to the Terrordrome. Pharoahe is an excellent mimic (he does a great Busta Rhymes and Southern Drawl at later points in the album), and his ability to capture Chuck D's flow is even more impressive on the new verse. This isn't a reinvention a la Tricky's Black Steel, but rather a track trying to recapture the original's magic.

This does cause one problem. Welcome to the Terrordrome is such a dynamic and iconic song that anything that follows it either needs to be as dynamic and iconic or it's just going to fall a little flat. And, unfortunately, that's what everything does. What It Is is pretty awesome, in an Ultramagnetic MC's psycho rap way, but it's such a slow, creepy change of pace that it takes a while to resituate your ear. We then move into When the Gun Draws, which is more of a decent addition to anti-gun violence raps than a new revelation.

Things pick up again with Let's Go and then gets fun and funky with Body Baby before moving into the love rap of Bar Tap which is saved a bit with humor, but drags on a bit too long. In a way, it sounds more like Pharoahe is using his humor to struggle against a label-mandated ballad than he is including it for his own reasons. Erykah Badu adds a much needed extra voice to the album on Hold On, but we're still stuck in a place where bith the beat and Pharoahe sound tired and a little bored. This is exasperated once we get to So Good. Pharoahe barely even tries to rap on that song. It's almost like we're in a very different, duller album than the one we started out in.

Trilogy redeems things a bit. It's still a bit... slow. The mix of beats sound too unadorned and would benefit from more texture. There's a lot going on, but there's almost too much space between each element. But the whole thing still has an ambition that's to be commended. In fact, if it wasn't preceded by the previous three tracks, it would stand out even more. But, placed where it is, I spent more time just wanting to move on to a different album than immersing myself in Pharoaohe's story of romantic betrayal.

It's all so contextual. Some resequencing to move the softer tracks in amongst the harder ones would've created a better sense of dynamics and would've allowed each song to better stand on it's own. You can kind of see what went into the thinking behind the current listing: things are grouped thematically and become more human as the album progresses. The defiance at the start gives way to a sense of unwanted freedom. But it kind of doesn't work because the comedown is so long and protracted. Instead of stressing a more well-rounded dichotomy, the album takes you on a journey that ends on a far less interesting note than the way it began.

Still, the strength of the opening, combined with the few gems along the way make the album impossible to dismiss. It's a good album. I still wish it was great. But I'll settle for good.

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