Monday, April 21, 2014

album review: 'ptsd: post traumatic stress disorder' by pharoahe monch

You know, when Eminem released ‘Rap God’ last year, I wonder how many people saw the underground rapper Pharoahe Monch referenced in the lyrics and either thought, ‘Hey, I wonder who that is’, or ‘I’ve heard the name, but if Eminem referenced him, he must be good, so it can’t hurt to check him out’.

And I’m not too proud to admit that I include myself in the second category. I had heard of Pharoahe Monch’s strange and twisted career before – starting in the underground with the critically acclaimed duo Organized Konfusion with Prince Poetry before releasing his debut instant classic Internal Affairs in 1999… and then vanishing from rap music for a good eight years after a sampling controversy before a comeback and complete shift in style and content with Desire in 2007. I figured that once again, it was a good opportunity to finally acquaint myself with an artist in my backlog that I just hadn’t had time to cover.
And man, it’s a good thing I did, because Pharoahe Monch represents almost everything I love in rap music. A lot of personality and charisma, a taste for eclectic beats and production, an actual sense of humour, and most of all a gift for intelligent and layered wordplay that deserved all of the praise it got.  And with the benefit of that knowledge, I could see traces of his multisyllabic flow and delivery in so many rappers who followed him that it’s startling that he isn’t more famous considering his influence.

But when Pharoahe Monch returned to hip-hop in 2007, he came back with a decidedly different edge, less of the hard-spitting yet deftly intelligent gangsta rap that characterized his debut and more of a conscious political angle. Now in theory, I had no issues with this: of the many rappers who have tackled politics and serious issues in their music, Pharoahe Monch would probably be one of the few who delivered the material with any degree of respectable nuance. But when he released his third album We Are Renegades in 2011, I found myself a little dissatisfied. The political arguments were distinctly disjointed, the wordplay wasn’t quite as tight, the heavier beats and production that moved away from the soul samples often felt like they lacked cohesion, and it all spoke to a lack of singular focus. Sure, the album was still very good and I liked much of the content that he brought up, but I felt his presentation suffered a bit in bringing it to the table. On top of that, the dystopian framing device of the album felt a little silly and hyperbolic to me – not so much bad as lacking in subtlety.

As such, I wasn’t sure what we’d get with Pharoahe Monch’s newest album Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The album did promise a more personal focus – a touch I felt was somewhat missing from We Are Renegades, but given it was marketed as a follow-up to that album, I had no idea what he was planning to do. So I picked up the album and expected the worst – how did it go?

Hmm, this is an interesting one, because while I definitely like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by Pharaohe Monch, I can’t quite say it works all the way through or is quite as effective as it could have been. It’s definitely an improvement on We Are Renegades, almost across the board, but at the same time, it suffers a similar problem. But to discuss that problem, I'm going to need to put up a spoiler warning before going deep into this record. If you want the fast and dirty opinion, it's a very good record and definitely worth your time if you're looking for a thinking man's brand of hip-hop. 

First, let's get the obvious positives out of the way. Pharoahe Monch is still one of the best technical lyricists in the game, both in terms of creativity and raw technique. I went through this album line by line in the lyrics, and while there are a few lines and segments that don't strike me as consistently amazing - I wasn't the biggest fan of the stuttering on 'Time2', I didn't really like the howling on 'Scream', and there were a lines that aren't stellar, but for the most part a tighter focus has done this record a lot of good in terms of lyricism. And it definitely helps that whenever he pulls on guest stars, namely Denaun, Black Thought, and Talib Kweli, they feel incredibly cohesive with the overall atmosphere of the track.

On a similar note, the greater focus has translated to better instrumentals and production as well, with the downbeat and dark tone manifesting the grimy production, the simmering guitars, and the slightly off-kilter synth lines and beats. Pharoahe Monch has had a liking for guitar-and-bass driven hip-hop for years, and in the menacing melody line of 'Losing My Mind', 'Damage', and 'The Jungle', plus the thick bass in 'Time2', 'Rapid Eye Movement', and 'Broken Again' adds a ton of exposed and raw atmosphere to the tracks. And while I don't often say this, I really like how Pharoahe Monch utilizes backing vocals on some of these tracks: it's a chorus line behind him on the more expansive and outward-focused songs, which makes their absence on the introspective moments all the more sharply defined. If I have a criticism, it's that some of the tracks feel a little top-heavy in the mix, and a greater breadth of sounds might have given some tracks a greater feeling of resonant depth without a need to go over the top as he does on the second-to-last track on this album - we'll get to that.

But now we move into the meat of the discussion: lyrics and themes. So let's get this out of the way first: of course there's a political connotation in Pharoahe Monch's exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder both in discussing the mental health of US servicemen and of his own struggles with depression and drugs. As such, if you're looking for the gleeful yet insightful chaos of Internal Affairs, you're not going to really get that. That's not saying there aren't tracks where Pharoahe Monch isn't spitting aggressively, but the tone of those tracks is a lot more bleak and dark. There's a lot of pent-up rage on this album, and thus the anti-establishment tracks like 'Bad MF' and 'Scream' land with a little more gravitas and nuance: sure, they're broad, exaggerated swipes, but they're understandable coming from a rapper who might not be in his right mind, something established early and frequently referenced - the framing of the scene is impeccable. It's what makes the violent imagery in songs like 'Damage' as the conclusion of the 'bullet trilogy' and 'Rapid Eye Movement' feel visceral, but also a little desperate and filled with real emotional subtext - those, combined with skits like 'Heroin Addict' have the feel of someone spinning out of control.

But even beyond that, what helps PTSD rise in my books is a tighter focus, because this is much more of an introspective story that is grounded in Pharoahe Monch's human struggles with depression and drugs, and when the album sticks close to that theme, it makes the story very relatable, poignant, and politically relevant. Sure, the attacks on the pharmaceutical industry might be heavy-handed, but when they come from such a real vulnerable place, they gain a ton of emotional resonance. And thus, 'Losing My Mind', 'Broken Again', and the title track are genuinely moving songs, and 'D.R.E.A.M.' is a such a powerful climax as it feels like a revitalization of spirit that is earned and meaningful...

And then the album's Recollection Facility framing device activates, tells Pharoahe Monch he's now in the future and is sentenced to life imprisonment, tying the album back to We Are Renegades and ending with the two punch of 'The Grand Illusion' remix, a song from the previous album now with symphonic elements and a slight retooling of the second verse. Now on the one hand, I completely get why he did this: tying the albums together has thematic resonance, fits the overarching narrative, and generally highlights that even if we manage to find personal renewal, we're still living in a dystopia waiting to happen.

But here's why I don't quite think it works: PTSD is a much more personal story, both in tone and in lyrical execution, and it touches on issues directly relevant to Pharoahe Monch today. And while elements in the instrumentation and political commentary might be similar, they're framed in a much better light that reflects greater nuance and focus - it's a different type of story. So when it becomes so directly linked with We Are Renegades, it feels jarring and really hurts the overall atmosphere of the album. On top of that, as much as I like 'Stand Your Ground', the polemic Pharoahe Monch released during the Trayvon Martin controversy, it does not feel right tacked onto the end of the album: the instrumentation doesn't feel cohesive, it does not fit the overall tone, and it does nothing for the overall narrative. 

And here's the funny thing: outside of that ending, this album is genuinely great and very compelling in terms of narrative, tone, and having some plain kickass tracks and wordplay. In a way, I'm a little reminded of the progressive metal album The Human Equation by Ayreon from 2004, which is one of my favourite albums of all time and also ends on a off-kilter sci-fi note that felt tonally inconsistent yet kind of works in the narrative. And yet this one, given its very personal ties to Pharoahe Monch himself and its more intimate execution, doesn't quite stick the landing as well. But with that in mind, I do like 'The Grand Illusion' as a song, and the remix isn't half bad either. So in the end, I'm going to weigh on the positive of a rapper I support and really like and give this album a 8/10. Definitely check this album out: Pharoahe Monch is one of the best in the rap game, and he deserves more credit than he gets.

No comments:

Post a Comment