Skill ride

Pharoahe Monch’s timely return
By MATTHEW GASTEIER  |  July 17, 2007

VIDEO: Pharoahe Monch, "Guns Draw"

All it took was a Godzilla sample and a simple, forceful “Simon says get the fuck up” for hyper-technical New York MC Pharoahe Monch to leave his mark on hip-hop history with “Simon Says (Get the Fuck Up)” eight years ago. But almost as quickly as he arrived, Monch was swept away in the wake of label politics and copyright law. That Godzilla sample, initially uncleared, has kept his solo debut, Internal Affairs (Priority), out of print to this day. Yet Monch, who finally released his long-awaited, much-delayed second album, Desire (Universal), on June 26, doesn’t seem the least bit concerned with trying to recapture that fleeting moment in the spotlight. And that’s a very good thing.

The 13 songs on Desire are packed with the kind of personality and bravery that are too often lacking in commercial hip-hop climate. It’s shocking to hear an album like this in 2007. Monch, who joins the Wu-Tang Clan, Cypress Hill, Talib Kweli, and others on the “Rock the Bells” tour that lands at the Tweeter Center next Thursday, deploys cleverly twisted wordplay and skillful manipulations of rhythm that seem almost anachronistic and outdated. It’s like watching a blacksmith hammer away, or playing an original Nintendo. But Desire is the Super Mario 3 of classically trained MCing: “I’m the poetical pastor/Slave to a label but I own my masters,” he rhymes in “Desire.” “Still get it poppin’ without artists and repertoire/’Cause Monch is the monarch only minus the A&R.” Elsewhere, he plays with the names of phone companies (“Cingular, not plural”) and other artists (“pop shit, make you feel the Clipse like Pharrell”) and manages to make rapping from the perspective of a bullet fresh on “Gun Draws.” It’s hard to figure how an MC this skilled could be out of the game for so long.

Of course, the beats throughout Desire belie just how out of step Monch is with the times. Drenched with horns and gospel-tinged choruses, the arrangements suggest that he’s been in a cave for the better part of a decade. “Free” has bouncing guitars that flirt with rap rock years behind schedule; the abstract paranoia of “What It Is” comes across as dense next to the spare, spooky nature of so much contemporary hip-hop. The second half of the album is shameless neo-soul, good, but still a bit like OutKast releasing Aquemini right now. The only cut that’s truly fresh comes from up-and-coming Detroit producer Black Milk, whose “Let’s Go” tosses wobbly guitars and splashing cymbals all over fading tape decks. Next-level production might catapult these lyrics right into the realm of an instant classic. Still, it’s refreshing to hear an album without brittle Neptunes ripoffs, shamelessly commercial Storch keyboards, or Asian strings from some unknown Timbaland follower.

So, as much as Desire sounds as if it should have come out in 2001, there’s a lot to like here. In hip-hop, different is good. In fact, retro tracks like the celebratory “Push” and the recklessly funky “Body Baby” make a solid case for different as great. Rigid ideas of what constitutes “real” have painted mainstream hip-hop into a corner. Monch has returned just in time to remind everyone that there’s something timeless in skillful lyricism and soulful beats. Like Little Brother’s 2006 disc The Minstrel Show (Atlantic) , Desire has the potential to wake up the sleeping hordes who rose in praise of Black Star, early Roots, and Dead Prez. It may not be what hip-hop wants right now, but it’s what hip-hop needs.

PHAROAHE MONCH | “Rock the Bells” tour | Tweeter Center, 885 South Main Street, Mansfield | July 26 | 617.931.2000

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