I have been gushing about the upcoming release of Pharoahe Monch's third album, W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) (which I will be referring to as "W.A.R." from here on out), for quite a while now. As I pointed out in my review of Monch's debut solo effort, Internal Affairs, he has always been one of my favorite artists, as he brings forth a brand of lyricism that is not common in any area of hip-hop.
Well, after three singles ("Shine," "Clap [One Day]," and "Black Hand Side"), W.A.R. is finally here, and with producers such as Diamond D, Exile, and Marco Polo on tap, I fully expected a banger going in, especially given how much I liked the singles. Pharoahe Monch has always been one of the more creative people in the industry, and although that creativity has actually hurt him at times (see his second release, Desire), it still forces me to look forward to anything the man puts out.
I certainly anticipated that W.A.R. would be better than Desire, and I even thought that it could very well end up being superior to Internal Affairs. However, I decided to take it one step at a time going in, because replicating an album as good as Monch's debut is not a simple task, and that if W.A.R. was anything close to Internal Affairs, I would be satisfied.
Overall, my attitude before I listened to W.A.R. was essentially the same frame of mind I had before I listened to Raekwon's Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang: expect a good product, but don't be too surprised if you come out feeling disappointed when the final seconds tick off of the album.
All of that said, let's get to this review, huh?
1. Calculated Amalgamation
Interestingly enough, the first song on W.A.R. was produced by Lion's Share Music Group (who?). The beat is pretty solid and almost has a Black Milk feel to it, as the drums are clearly the focal point of the instrumental. Pharoahe Monch's flow on it is unusually subdued, though, and that doesn't mesh well with the production. I've gotta say that this album could have started out better.
The Exile-produced cut, but it does not sound like an Exile beat at all. Quite frankly, it's pretty boring, and once again, Monch is not his usual self on the mic, as it sounds like he's just going through the motions. What the hell is going on here?
Okay; getting better. Marco Polo is on the boards for this one, and he lays out a good (but not great) beat for Monch and guest artists Immortal Technique and Vernon Reid. I've never been a huge Immortal Technique fan, but he sounds great on the hook. By far the best track so far, but I'm certainly hoping that changes, because if the title track is the best cut on W.A.R., we're in trouble.
4. Clap (One Day)
This was the album's second single, and it's also one of the album's best songs. The beat by M-Phazes knocks, and Pharoahe Monch sounds like he was genetically built for it with the way he flows over it. Showtyme, who helped to form one of the only good songs on Desire ("Desire," and it was actually fantastic), is on the hook. Also, the short freestyle by Pharoahe at the end was sick. Fortunately, "W.A.R." is no longer the best song on this project.
5. Black Hand Side
Damn; W.A.R. has really taken a spectacular turn for the better, as each of the past three songs has eclipsed the previous in terms of overall sickness. A dude named Mike Loe crafts the instrumental here, and he does an incredible job, incorporating violins and numerous other instruments to go along with some great drums. Styles P drops a guest verse and just rips it, and Phonte channels his Percy Miracles persona and croons the hook. To put the cherry on top, Pharoahe Monch sounds phenomenal on this. "Black Hand Side," W.A.R.'s third single, is the best track on the album; easily.
6. Let My People Go
I feel like this track could have been so much better if Fatin "10" Horton (who produced this) just altered the beat ever so slightly where he would omit the part of the instrumental that surfaces at the end of each bar. I also thought Pharoahe Monch's hook on this was pretty lame, and the way he changes up his voice and flow on the second verse does not work.
This was the first single, dropping all the way back in July. It is the lone Diamond D production on the album, and it was a pretty solid effort. I loved Monch's flow over it, and I thought the contribution from female R&B artist Mela Machinko on the chorus brought "Shine" to another level. The momentum that "Let My People Go" killed just came back.
8. Haile Selassie Karate
Whatever that means. Anyway, Samiyam's beat on this is fairly effective, as I like the choppiness (you know, the kind of choppiness that Exile's beats are supposed to have). Ultimately, this cut is very short, featuring one verse from Monch and a hook that Mr. Porter sings twice. Meh.
9. The Hitman
Now this sounds like something that would have been on Internal Affairs. The M-Phazes beat, consisting of guitar strums and a harp, definitely hits home, and it complements Pharoahe Monch's style extraordinarily well. Because of that, Monch ends up sounding like a beast over this, making "The Hitman" one of the better songs on W.A.R..
I've gotta ask one question before I actually review this track: why the hell is Jean Grae on this? I might be wrong, and I apologize to Jean Grae if I am, but it seems painfully obvious to me that Monch wrote her verse, so why the hell is she rapping it? Well, at least the beat by M-Phazes knocks, and Pharoahe tears it to pieces. Royce da 5'9" also makes an appearance, and he comes strong, as if M-Phazes created the beat for him and Pharoahe Monch took it and used it for his own album. Man...how good could "Assassins" have been without Jean Grae?
11. The Grand Illusion (Circa 1973)
And then we're presented with this garbage. First of all, what in the living hell is Citizen Cope doing on a rap album? Second of all, what was going through the minds of the production team of Adam Deitch & Eric Krasno when they made this beat? This is really the same duo that made that banger of a beat for 50 Cent's "My Gun Go Off" on Curtis? Finally, what was Pharoahe Monch thinking period? It also figures that this song is over five minutes long. Ugh.
12. Still Standing
This is the weakest of the four M-Phazes beats on W.A.R., but it isn't horrible. The latter part of that statement notwithstanding, I expected a much better end to what turned out to be a disappointing album. Actually, that doesn't make any sense, because, in that case, I shouldn't have been expecting such a fine conclusion.
Remember earlier when I said that if W.A.R. was anything close to Internal Affairs, I would have been satisfied? Well, it isn't, so I'm not. It's a step up from Desire, but let's be honest; Pharoahe Monch would have really had to crap the bed not to come up with a better project than that.
I'm not saying there aren't any bright moments on this album, because there are. All three singles were very good, and songs like "The Hitman" and "Assassins" were thoroughly enjoyable, but some of the other stuff Monch included on here was just flat out garbage. I mean, what the hell was going through his mind when he decided on the Citizen Cope feature? Not only that, but you're telling me that he couldn't score a single beat from The Alchemist?
Maybe it's because I'm such a huge Pharoahe Monch fan, but I expected much, much better from him, especially when you take into account that he had almost four years to perfect W.A.R.. This is the absolute best he could come up with? I'm beginning to wonder whether or not Monch is actually capable of crafting a consistent album anymore, because both this and Desire are light years away from the level he reached on his debut.
W.A.R. is definitely my biggest disappointment of 2011 so far (even moreso than Talib Kweli's Gutter Rainbows), and this was one of the albums I was most anticipating. It's not even that the production and features were the only low points of the record, either; Pharoahe Monch just sounds downright lazy on some of these tracks. What happened to that mind-boggling flow that he had perfected to a science over the years? It surfaces every now and then, but, for the most part, it's conspicuously absent.
I really hope Monch goes back to the drawing board and comes back with a fourth album quickly, because I am slowly beginning to lose faith in him as an artist. The dude still clearly has talent, but he is not utilizing it. Sigh.
TOP FIVE TRACKS
1. Black Hand Side
2. Clap (One Day)
4. The Hitman
The Grand Illusion (Circa 1973)