If you were a hip-hop head in the “golden age”, you grew up with Organized Konfusion, even if it took time for you to realize it. Their eponymous first album was given a slew of “perfect” ratings, along with the dubious honor of being a “future cult classic”. Being underrated is a double-edged sword, of course, and critical acclaim doesn’t always intersect with mass appeal. Pharoahe Monch–the half of Organized Konfusion that forged the more successful solo career–knows a thing or two about this.
At the age of 41, Pharoahe (born Troy Jamerson) has reached a new peak. The Queens-bred rapper–whose stage name was born from a bad haircut in the late 80s, who rose to prominence with songs like “Who Stole My Last Piece of Chicken?, whose “Girlies, rub on your titties” refrain gave him clout as a solo artist–has long been known for his salacious wit, his furious delivery and his capacity for blending humor and incendiary political commentary. Phaorahe Monch’s latest effort, P.T.S.D. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), only bolsters an already impressive resume, making the case that his name belongs among the Chuck Ds, 2Pacs and KRS-Ones as one of hip-hop’s greatest sociopolitical voices.
“We are sentencing you to life imprisonment for the violation of the world free thinking agreement” (from “The Recollection Facility, Pt. 3″)
There are two primary themes running through P.T.S.D. One of these, a holdover from W.A.R. (We Are Renegades), is Pharoahe’s dystopia. The world he lives in is hardly free at all–it’s eerily Orwellian, but it is founded in the alarming truths of America’s prison-industrial complex and military activity. Information is controlled, and knowledge, given its equivalence to power, is illegal. This is the premise of “Assassins” and W.A.R.’s title track, and it appears in P.T.S.D. most obviously through the “Recollection Facility” interludes. These may not be the most inspiring tracks on the album, but the rhyming action of the “recollection facility” orients the listener to Pharoahe’s worldview. “Damage”, a single from two years ago, concludes a trilogy of songs from the point of view of a gun, following “Stray Bullet” from Stress: The Extinction Agenda and the spooky, uncanny”When the Gun Draws” from Desire. It’s another somber reminder of lives ended prematurely.
The other prevalent thread, and the more prominent one on P.T.S.D., is Pharoahe‘s depression. This is where the album derives its beguiling power–Pharoahe’s vulnerability is unexpected and shattering, especially given hip-hop’s proclivity to promote aggressive masculinity. He’s known for a ferocious, bellowing delivery, but he’s generally much quieter in P.T.S.D. Some might find this touch off-putting, a noticeable departure from Pharoahe’s rapping M.O., but this change in tone adds another dimension to him as a rapper and as an otherwise enigmatic public figure. When it seems that there’s no space in hip-hop’s crowded, noisy soundscape for weakness, he strengthens his credibility as an artist through his unflinching honesty and sense for pathos. Why talk about depression, though? Because it’s real, heartbreakingly real, and so is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but Pharoahe is one of the few rappers willing to touch these subjects.
“Who put these pussies on top?/Puttin’ out that pussy music, callin’ it pussy pop” (from “Bad MF“)
P.T.S.D. sticks to a more-or-less linear narrative, but “Bad MF” allows Pharoahe to interrupt his harrowing story of depression to say “let me talk my shit”. This song will appease Internal Affairs-era purists who expect spirited, loud lyrical onslaughts. It’s no “Simon Says”, but it’s still great, entertaining and driving like the Rawkus Records joints of the late nineties. The legendary Queens spitter still has some mean stylistic talent, though, also showcasing his aptitude for dizzying internal and multi-syllabic rhyme patterns on “Rapid Eye Movement“. His late-nineties swagger is undeniably still there, but the tonal shift is obvious.
“Squeeze seven CCs so I could see the seven seas” (from “Broken Again“)
For Pharaohe Monch, heroin use is a metaphor with multiple meanings. “Broken Again”, the track that takes place in the belly of the beast, configures Pharoahe’s deep depression as an inescapable heroin addiction. This metaphor serves to play into the unfortunate stigmas surrounding depression. It’s both the musical and narrative high of P.T.S.D., a touching song that showcases the versatile production of The Lion Share Music Group, Pharoahe’s actually-not-at-all-bad singing voice and his well-noted ability to assume the voices of other characters. What it does with so few words is astounding. “Broken Again”, the hectic Quelle Chris-produced “Scream” and Pharoahe’s own fascinating interlude, “Heroin Addict”, all stand out production-wise in an album perhaps too full of electric guitar. But “Broken Again” is far and away the most compelling, with its unique instrumentation and crescendoing, harmonious strings.
Then “D.R.E.A.M.” rolls around, and the sun peeks through the clouds. Below, there’s Pharoahe and his fellow Rawkus graduate, Talib Kweli, slapping hands and sharing stories just like old times. It’s a moment of redemption, resolution and survival. You can tell he’s just glad to be there. The Gospel According To Pharoahe is full of scintillating peaks and devastating valleys but in its final pages, the future lies in front of him; beautiful, naked and promising.