Tuesday, December 3, 2019

resonators 2019 - episode #023 - 'internal affairs' by pharoahe monch

I think I'm in the quarter of Resonators entries where I'm just going to be reviewing acts that I otherwise know and and like a great deal already - a little different than the discovery and research that came from last year's genre, but when the albums are pretty consistently great, am I supposed to complain?

Anyway, the story of this artist begins in the late 80s with the duo with the very timely name Simply II Positive MCs - in a desire to remain more marketable in changing times they'd rename themselves to Organized Konfusion and begin releasing critically acclaimed cult albums throughout the the 90s. And while the critics adored them for forward-thinking content and a unique sound in the era of gangsta rap, their eclectic and varied delivery and lyricism meant they never really saw mainstream success - kind of a damn shame because they didn't skimp on hooks or catchiness either, but that happens more than it should in the underground even today. But three albums in and after a particularly ambitious but mostly failed 1997 project The Equinox, the duo decided to split amicably and go their separate ways to chase solo crossover - and when you consider both had been rapping and producing their own projects through the entire decade, it's not surprising they wanted to thin out their workload and narrow their focus. It would take a relatively long time for member Prince Po to land his solo debut with The Slickness in 2004 to generally positive coverage, but the other rapper would receive immediate acclaim with his release in 1999 on Rawkus, featuring a murder's row of collaborators and later highlighted as one of the best hip-hop debuts of all time. And given that I've talked about this artist before and it's near the twentieth anniversary of its release - and the long-awaited re-release on streaming platforms long thought impossible thanks to sample clearance issues - it's time we go back to the source: this is Internal Affairs by Pharoahe Monch, and this is Resonators!

So you'd think that given my familiarity with Pharoahe Monch and this album in specific that it'd a pretty easy project to discuss -  it's a classic debut that Pharoahe hasn't quite topped, a landmark in the underground in 1999, it holds up to this day, let's just be happy it's reissued and available on streaming and go home happy. And that was what I was planning to say... until I gave Internal Affairs a few more relistens, and came to the abrupt realization that the context for this album and why certain elements haven't really aged as well as you might think do demand some explanation, both relating to the album and in the era in which it came. Or to put it another way, Internal Affairs is in a bit of a different lane in comparison with many of the underground projects that I've covered this year, and the sort of album I'm not sure would get the same reception should it be released today - very much of its time and era in the late 90s, and I think with twenty years of separation, while I still think it's pretty great, parts of it might not have held up as strongly as many want to admit.

And a huge part of this has to do with context in the last years of the twentieth century, namely that for as much as I described the pronounced split between the decadence of the shiny suit era and the grubby underground, even in the mainstream it was never just that simple, because for as much as the 'jiggy' era was a thing on the charts, it wasn't precisely dominant. And I'm not so much talking about the similar flash of No Limit but the darker, nastier, more outwardly nihilistic acts that erupted in backlash, all politically incorrect and violent and in your face as a reaction to the perceived shallowness of culture at the time, especially in male-dominated media. It happened in rock with nu-metal, and while it would slide into the underground through subgenres like horrorcore, it did get mainstream success thanks to acts like DMX and Eminem. Gruff but angry, hypermasculine almost to the point of parody, it became the antithesis of the shiny suits or the more thoughtful and conscious alternative rap of the time from acts like Common or The Roots or Lauryn Hill. 

So where does this place Pharoahe Monch and Internal Affairs? Well, it gets a little complicated, because you tell he's plenty comfortable shouting opposite M.O.P. and Canibus and other artists emblematic of that era, but he's also a much sharper technical lyricist and he does have a bit more of a conscious, thoughtful edge, which is why Common and labelmate Talib Kweli show up too, albeit for a much smaller chunk of the project. It's more likely that they were trying to cross a few different audiences within the underground, because in comparison with many of the acts that I've covered on Resonators, Internal Affairs could have easily gotten big with the right marketing push, and 'Simon Says' even was a very minor single that hit the Hot 100 - it's shorter than the average underground behemoth unconcerned with radio, it's a little more melodic both in production and within Pharoahe's flows, and there are actual hooks, a real skill he kept from Organized Konfusion. As such, for as layered and clever as Pharoahe can be, this is an album that goes down much more easily and quickly than many coming out of the underground, both then and now, helped along by a more theatrical bark that bent across flows and cadences that still managed to connect his internal rhymes - it's not at all surprising that Eminem shouted him out on 'Rap God', as there are absolutely parallels to the technical craftsmanship. And yet it's also hard not to consider Eminem when you hear a song like 'Rape' on this album, which yes, is not talking about an actual woman and more about hip-hop who Pharoahe Monch fantasizes taking in hyperbolic and yet specific details, where the line that leads off the second verse is 'she had the nerve to take the case to court / knowing I rape for sport' and in comparison to other MCs, they're just 'not fuckin' it right' - where 'right' is framed as rape. Even anthropomorphized, that's still all kinds of disgusting and even in this era wasn't okay!

But that song and its placement is also emblematic of the weird, quasi-detached, very late-90s dichotomy I've already described on this album - right before that song we get 'Queens', a relatively sober tale of a gang shootout that's so human and detailed you almost don't notice the homophobic slur tossed in, and right after it we get the big single 'Simon Says', which plays to hype anthem territory where he's trying to get girls to rub on their titties, but on his second verse tries to lampshade it by saying people will call the song sexist - nah, it's the song called 'Rape' I'd put in that territory, this is just perpetually horny and almost feels a little too juvenile and immature to take seriously. And that's really the attitude towards sex that's sprayed all over this project, as later on we get the track 'The Ass', where after his graphic escapades we get Apani in full Gangsta Boo mold throwing it right back at him, placing this closer to Run The Jewels-level ridiculousness than anything played seriously... except for where this album does get more restrained and serious, which is on the very next song 'The Light' which is a completely convincing and genuinely romantic love song! Hell, outside of the tacked on remix of 'Simon Says' - which in my opinion is better than the original as most songs get better when you add Method Man, Redman, and Busta Rhymes - the last two songs are the Organized Konfusion reunion 'God Send' focusing on the desperate street-level nightmare within Queens, and the latter is the conscious moment of self-discovery 'The Truth' with Common and Talib Kweli. And for as convincing as Pharoahe is on cuts like these, place him on sheer, straightforward, grisly bruisers like 'Hell' with Canibus, 'No Mercy' with M.O.P., 'The Next Shit' with Busta, and then 'Right Here', 'Behind Closed Doors', 'Official' and even the 'Intro', and he's just as potent, from the alliteration of 'Hell' to the sports metaphors of 'Official'. I have to give him credit for the sheer variety on display across the majority of these songs... even if I'd argue that the whiplash tonal shifts and missteps absolutely date the project and have not aged well at all. 

Of course, the production is the sort of thing that could easily elevate Internal Affairs... and yet I'd argue it's very much in the same vein of the rapping and content here: colourful, varied, accessible, but very much rooted in a sound that would feel most at place in the late 90s and can feel a little dated to that time. I mean, 'Hell' literally opens with a dial-up modem effect that's stretched into its guttural bass and stuttering mix, but that's just the obvious. You have bangers that rely on squonking, heavier melody lines like the intro, The Alchemist flipping the Jerry Goldsmith sample into a huge banger on 'No Mercy', the tinny guitar pickup amplified into 'Right There', and most notoriously, an uncleared sample of Godzilla on 'Simon Says' that wound up placing Rawkus in court and stalling the reissue and distribution of this album for years to come. And from there, it's hard not to feel like the production was chosen more to flatter the guests than Pharoahe directly, from the more jittery percussion off the bouncy plucks for 'The Next Shit' with Busta to the much more elegant strings on 'The Truth' for Common. Certainly these were chosen better than any tones that were trying to sound more eerie or hellish to match the album art or more grisly subject matter in the verses, which even for the time don't always nail the atmosphere, with the most jarring case coming for 'Rape' with the twinkling Quincy Jones sample off the scratching that doesn't match any of the mood at all. But beyond that... outside of me nitpicking some questionable vocal mastering on 'Queens' and 'God Send' that doesn't quite match the fidelity of the rest of the album, this is a project that does go down pretty easy, and I daresay the melodic focus has only helped this last.

But as a whole... going back to Internal Affairs, I've found myself wanting to like it as much as I did five or six years ago the first time I heard it, but through the process of putting together this series, you begin to understand why it might have slipped out of the limelight. Ironically it's a project that has seen backlash from different avenues over the years - ten years ago people were annoyed with the concessions to blunt anthemic moments instead of sheer wordplay, whereas I'd take more issue with the deeper implications of that some of that wordplay now in comparison with finding the bangers workable - but in both cases, you can chalk both up to where this streak of mainstream-adjacent rap was at the time; not really excusable, but understandable. And as such... while there are real missteps, I'm giving this a light 8/10 and a recommendation, but with the heavy qualifier that if you don't have a taste for the sounds of the time, I can see you being much colder on it. From here, Pharoahe Monch would go on to having a scattered but acclaimed career, and if you want to trace his origin and a fascinating time capsule to boot, Internal Affairs is worth the investigation.

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