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Pharoahe Monch - Desire

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Artist: Pharoahe Monch

Album: Desire

Label: Universal Motown

Review date: Aug. 1, 2007

Pharoahe Monch would be one of hip hop’s most respectable, most enduring working titans… providing he ever actually released anything. If I gave you the whole backstory, we’d have to skip lunch. Open a new window, Google him (check the spelling) and pick me up at the next ‘graph. Meanwhile, suffice it to say that his former group Organized Konfusion predates the handheld calculator, his never-released 2002 LP Inner Vision remains one of rap’s ghost classics, and that Desire, its would-be follow-up, is the first thing he’s dropped in well nigh a decade, which is at least a century in rap years.

And it, Desire, is a mess: intriguing, puzzling, intriguing and ultimately frustrating as all hell. To reclaim his relevance, he needed a classic. He brought an uneven, inscrutable experimental record. It’s an experimental record with a few hot, resolute tracks (particularly “Desire”) and a lot of thrilling wordplay, but it’s not a record to make sense of, which must be how he wanted it. Monch doesn’t mind making you do some of the work. This is a guy who drops the word "triskaidekaphobia" and instructs you to look it up. And that ain't the half.

The Gnarls-biting single “Body Baby” had a lot of heads crying Love Below, but there’s plenty of tight, balanced rapping on Desire. Plus, it’s mostly rapping-about-rapping, so relax, heads. “Free” and “When the Gun Draws” mix in Monch’s well-informed social paranoia, but he uses conspiracy theories the same way he uses boasts, disses and film allusions. He’s still the battle-rhymer he always was, if both toughened and mellowed by age. On “What It Is,” he convincingly mimics a cast of rappers from Ludacris to Eminem to Craig Mack, from famous to funny to forgotten, and, as always, distinguishes himself as the brilliantly observant, scathingly witty witness. He clearly disapproves of hip hop’s modern deficiencies and excesses, but he’s not a hater – he’s having too much fun with his own skill.

He keeps a tight coterie of producers, humors no guest rappers, and starts off with his three strongest new tracks. He could’ve had a solid comeback album. But that wasn’t weird enough for Pharoahe Monch. He couldn’t resist a redundant cover of “Welcome to the Terrordome” (sure, a lot of these finger-snapping, ringtone-purchasing kids today know PE through Flavor of Love, but everyone who’ll buy Desire has Fear of a Black Planet memorized, and Monch doesn’t add anything but gratuitous ad libs). He couldn’t resist “Body Baby,” which is either naked commercial appeal or impassably ironic. And although the record is well shy of an hour, he had to pad the latter half with tepid sex jams and “Trilogy,” ten minutes of maudlin yarn-spinning pretension that would make R. Kelly giggle. Keep Googling his references, but don’t expect to figure him out.

By Emerson Dameron

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