Pointy Crocodile Dundee style shoes, poking out from beneath semi-loose fitting jeans, tap constantly to the rhythm of a new album entitled 'Desire'. 'Desire', and the intriguing shoes, are the respective creation and property of Pharoahe Monch. Wearing a white vest, cloaked by an open white shirt, he sits with his head bent low (displaying intricate cornrows) and immersed in his music, as if he might just be oblivious of the roomful of watching, listening journalists – a notion regularly interrupted by his attentive explanations in-between each track that is played.
His face and posture exude a quiet and faithful confidence in his new music. Pharoahe's head nods forcefully to the strong beat of 'I'm Free', an ode to emancipation from Geffen and their poor handling (his opinion!) of the last projects released by Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Next, the Alchemist produced title track of the album showcases the next stage of Pharoahe's life as a recording artist, "Slave to a label, but I own my masters". I discovered on questioning, that this claim isn't strictly true… (That's artistic freedom for you..). It has to be said, Pharoahe's production skills are pretty tight. Powerful, funk-infused rhythms which support his matured lyricism turn out to be created by him. A soulful bass line adapted from Tweet's 'My Place' evokes an "Ooooh" of surprised recognition in 'So Good'. Continuing on a soulful tip, Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu are slated to feature on 'Hold On', whilst 'Walk Alone' (produced by D12's Kon Artis) will feature the legendary Aretha Franklin. Word is, Aretha likes the song so much she agreed to re-sing it for Pharoahe when he couldn't get clearance of the sample.
The debut single from the album, 'Push' is another of Pharoahe's admirable beat creations. With Tower of Power on the horns, and Pharoahe actually singing throughout the song, he has developed as an artist and seems unafraid to experiment. It works for me. Pharoahe exhibits additional fearlessness as he "channels the spirit of Elvis Presley and Tom Jones" into 'Body Baby'. The album oozes timeless, soul-inspired yet gritty character, reminiscent of A Tribe Called Quest. Before you whip out your backpack, there are a few straight-hard beats too, such as on the Ice Cube-ish 'What It Is'. Detroit-based producer and emcee Black Milk, who has produced for Canibus and several Slum Village albums, was responsible for the album's first street single 'Let's Go'. Again, strong on the beats.
Perhaps it is with the awareness that perceived 'conscious' hip-hop can only sell so much, that he states "hip-hop is moving away from radio and towards internet". With this in mind, he announces that he will be making a 15-minute short-film for online distribution only to illustrate stand-out song 'When The Gun Draws', a sequel to 'Stray Bullet' (which he recorded in 1994 as one-half of hip-hop duo Organized Konfusion). Similarly to 'Stray Bullet', 'When The Gun Draws' tells a story through the eyes of a bullet. It begins: "Good evening, my name is Mr Bullet /And I respond to the index when you pull it…"
Pharoahe has had a bit of fun with this album, but in doing so has managed to treat typically clichéd hip-hop topics in an original (and musically-dope) manner. Take the song 'Bar Tap', for example. He takes the exhausted subject of temptation in a club, and expresses the situation without lowering his lyrical wit to the gratuitous nature of most club-banging hip-hop on the same subject. Pharoahe's style is refreshing. It transpires that the lady to whom he claims "I'm trying to get horizontal like yesterday", marries him later in the album, and he later 'murders' her. Unfortunately, we didn't have the privilege of listening to the skits at the playback so we can only wait for the album's release to hear Pharoahe's psychotic love adventures.
Pharoahe Monch continues to deliver the skilled wordplay he displayed on 1999 album 'Internal Affairs', while he treats potentially crude subjects with matured expression. His lyrics are less brash, his production is anything but throwaway, and his sound has longevity. Perhaps 'Desire' isn't commercial sounding enough to give him that public boost, but I have a feeling I'll be listening to this one for a while.
Decide for yourself; it's due for release in late 2006, with 'Push' as the first single.
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