Rating: Three Lombardi Trophies in Five Years
I haven't listened to much hip-hop since moving to Vermont. And that's been okay with me. It's not that we're in the midst of a particular dearth of quality hip-hop, it's just that I haven't been much in the mood to slog through so much crap just to find the good stuff. And there is a ton of crap out there. It's not like Indie music, where I know exactly where to go to find new and exciting stuff to plug into. And it doesn't help when some of my favorite hip-hop artists just seem to have lost it -- Talib Kweli, Mos Def, the Roots -- whatever "It" was, and whether or not they ever had "It" (and lost it) or I just tired of their particular sound.
What I do know is this: Pharoahe Monche hasn't dropped an album in eight years. Maybe that's the trick to not losing "It." Dude is ready, set, go for 51 minutes on Desire. It's albums like this the reaffirm my love for hip-hop -- and reaffirm my deep seated hope that this genre has an endless supply of something to say, both to the American public and to popular music, too. So no doubt about it, Monche is one of those rare MCs with words to spare.
After a solid album opener in "Free, " Monch opens up a six-pack of post-Gospel whup-ass with "Desire," keeping the listener engaged with intense production and lines like, My book is a ovary/The pages I lust to turn/My pen's the penis/When I write the ink's the sperm. In the Motown-infused "Push," with vocal guests Showtime and Mela Machinko, and a tight horn arrangement by Tower of Power, you hardly notice that Monch only takes one turn at a mic, allowing his guests to drive the song without overpowering it. His 'cover' of "Welcome to the Terrordome" nearly holds a candle to the original, but it's hard to top Chuck D. Luckily, Monch gets it out of the way early, clearing the way for a number of consistent, ridiculously amazing tracks.
"What It Is" is about as claustrophobic as Desire gets, almost a club track were it not so hard, with a whispered hook and stark, nearly industrial production. "When the Gun Draws," a "message" track (where most socially conscious MCs tend to trip up), is so lyrically engaging with conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory that one can barely tell what it's about. And that's a theme that runs all across the length and breadth of this album. There's so much to unpack, that even after repeated listens, it's still hard to decipher what exactly Monch is actually saying. If Sufjan Stevens is the new Walt Whitman, then Monch might be our James Joyce. He's not quite there yet, but given time (another eight years or so), we just might have a Ulysses on our hands.
From the beat-friendly, boogie-woogie "Body Beat" to twinkle-star, slow-jam "Bar Trap" to the meandering, jazz-hop, symphonic suite "Trilogy," Monche continues to engage the ears and brains of his audience. Even the albums more ponderous moments -- "Hold On" and "So Good" -- have enough nuggets to mine that they can't slow this freight train down. Monche's flow is so textured and bewitching, that it's a disappointment every time the album ends. And unless it's been on repeat for three or four spins already, it easy to skip back to track one and start the whole deal over.
And that's what makes Desire so fan-freaking-tastic. It's addictive without being all-style/no-substance. Desire isn't candy-coated hip-pop. It's red meat. But you wouldn't know it from how many times you keep going back to the well. It's what this listener's been hungry for all year long without even knowing it. And once you've heard it, I've a feeling you won't be able to put it back in the jewel case either.
If only we didn't have to wait so long between albums.