What Means W.A.R.?

I know everyone’s got their genitals out for the Kanye West/Jay-Z collaboration, Watch the Throne, but I haven’t even listened to it yet. I’m not saying I won’t like it, mind you – I’ve already found some surprisingly good hip-hop this year and I dug the hell out of Kanye’s last album . I just haven’t made time for Kanye and Mr. Beyoncé and I don’t know if I will for quite some time. I know they’ll get plenty of critical love (the most absurd thing about Pitchfork’s review? Writer Tom Breihan’s confession that he liked Ocean’s Twelve, a movie that crawled so far up its own ass that it couldn’t help but vomit up a shit-stinking, infuriatingly indulgent-yet-lazy-as-fuck ending that makes my eyes want to bleed just thinking about it) and move plenty of units and, even if I love Watch the Throne, I know Jay-Z and Kanye West couldn’t give less of a shit what I think about their album. And rightfully so.

I’m guessing Pharoahe Monch, being a fairly astute dude, also doesn’t give a rat’s ass what I think of his music so I’ll start my review of W.A.R. (which stands for We Are Renegades. I know. I know. But just bear with me, will ya?) with my own confession (in case you couldn’t tell already, there’s no chance that I’m about to admit to liking Ocean’s Twelve): I bought W.A.R. on the first day it was available in Amazon’s digital store because I fucking loved Pharoahe Monch’s 2007 album, Desire. Sorry, that’s not the confession. My confession is that I avoided listening to W.A.R. for months – months – because one song features a collaboration with Citizen Cope, a guy who manages to marry (in a predictably unsuccessful and cringe-inducing fashion) a strong desire to be Bob Dylan to an equally strong desire to be Chuck D. Before I’d heard even a single beat of Pharoahe Monch’s new album, it had inadvertently reminded me that Citizen Cope is allowed to make music for a living in an economy where some people have no job at all. So I shunned W.A.R. for a while, fearing the worst.

Which was, admittedly, a dumb thing to do.

Citizen Cope’s (thankfully non-rapping) cameo on W.A.R. is not great, but Cope avoids fucking up the entire album and that’s the nicest thing I’m ever going to write about him (unless he announces his retirement from music tomorrow). Goofy abbreviated title notwithstanding, W.A.R. is always good and often great, which is in accordance with my expectations for Pharoahe Monch, who I think might be one of the most underrated rappers working right now (by his own admission, on “Calculated Amalgamation,” Monch claims to have “raised the bar so high/ the bar’s afraid to look down”).

There’s a loose sort of concept behind W.A.R. that has something to do with some soldier in 2023 finding some hidden information in Afghanistan that reveals the nefarious plot of some ill-defined evil organization that presumably started the war (and maybe some other wars) in order to facilitate that most dreaded of all conspiracy tropes, the one-world government that just totally oppresses the shit out of everyone. You can completely ignore this concept while listening to W.A.R. and you’ll do just fine. In fact, Monch spends more of the album at war with mainstream hip-hop (both in sound and fashion – at one point during album highlight “Let My People Go,” he admonishes the hip-hop youth to pull their pants up) than anything else, which is just fine with me.

The thing I’ve loved most about Pharoahe Monch since the first time I heard him is his voice, both as a writer and the actual vocal tone of his rhymes. Dude’s voice sounds like a hot, buttered saxophone and, whether he’s delivering a bare-knuckled verbal beatdown to an inferior MC or preaching about the understandably uneasy relationship African-Americans still have with our police and/or government, his rhymes are compelling, intense, and sometimes just fucking hilarious. There are a couple great guest performances, most notably by Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, Jill Scott, and Ms. Jean Grae who is the second highest ranking member of my Make Another Fucking Album Already! Club (behind Santigold). Grae’s verse on “Assassins” is phenomenal and it’s just one of the ways in which W.A.R. overcomes its wonky concept and guest shot from Citizen Cope.

Should I have known better than to doubt Pharoahe Monch’s greatness, even given the presence of the aforementioned dopey Cope? Probably. But, assuming your reading comprehension is above about a first grade level, you’ve probably gleaned by now that W.A.R. is far from perfect, even if CC is the album’s most glaring weak spot. The concept, though easily ignored, isn’t even half baked and if there’s one thing I like more than an easy to ignore, half-assed concept, it’s the lack of such bullshit in the first place. The actual songs on W.A.R. are just fine on their own, especially for people who dug Desire as much as I did. But without its wisp of a concept, W.A.R. would simply be a collection of funk, soul, and gospel-tinged, wonderfully old-school rap tunes from a guy whose skills easily eclipse those of his better-known peers. And I think that would certainly be enough.

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Catchy Yes, But Trendy No

In the early days of Bollocks! (when we updated about as frequently as we have been the last two weeks. We’re working on it, I promise), I sometimes felt guilty for never having listened to bands or artists whose names are repeatedly dropped in circles of People Who Know Shit About Music. For instance, I have still never heard a single Guided By Voices song. But I do own one Robert Pollard record. Guided By Voices fans might be quick to suggest I’ve missed out on something special, but there’s also a kind of advantage in hearing something like Pollard’s We All Got Out of the Army without being able to make the default comparison to his old legendary gig. I don’t know how legendary Digable Planets were, but I’ve heard their name mentioned by every trustworthy hip-hop aficionado I’ve spoken to in the last decade or so. I still haven’t listened to them and yet here I am blasting Black Up, the new record by former Digable Planet Ishmael Butler, released under the name Shabazz Palaces. 

The first thing you’re likely to notice about Black Up is that it’s an almost willfully obtuse album. The song titles are pretentious on a level that would make Conor Oberst blush and the beats are generally free of both boom and bap, preferring instead to wander over jazz-inflected bass lines, glitchy electronics, and exquisitely sung female backing vocals. Shabazz Palaces’ defenders might call these songs “spacious” and I’m inclined to agree with the assessment. In terms of sheer musical imagination, Black Up is like a sparse cousin to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, although Ishmael Butler buries his pop sensibilities a little deeper than Kanye does.

I first tried to listen to this album in my car but, with the sound of road noise, other cars, and a crazy woman telling everyone to go to hell as she crossed against a traffic signal (happened to me on my way to work the other day), it just didn’t grab me. As I write this, I’m listening to Black Up on my headphones and it fares a lot better this way. My head is full of every nuance of these beats (and let’s face it: a lot of hip-hop, especially the mainstream stuff, is desperately lacking in nuance) and I’m hearing melodies in the instrumental parts that were completely lost in my car’s shitty factory-issue sound system (I’m never gonna be the guy next to you whose throbbing bass is shaking your fillings loose, but I wouldn’t object to a car stereo that can give me a little more bang for my sonic buck, both on albums like Black Up and, say, Minor Threat’s Complete Discography or Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison. I’m talking about clarity of sound here, not just bowel-jiggling bass).

The lyrics, in part because of Butler’s slight voice, tend to drift up from below the surface of the music, but there are some great moments here. “Youlogy,” which also has the least pretentious title on the album, features a line that I love: “The money always fools ya/ so corny’s gettin’ cooler” (the line was particularly resonant with me when I was listening to the album on Spotify because it was interrupted by a commercial for some song called “My Best Friend’s Brother” which is apparently all the rage among the Disney kids these days. The nicest thing I can say about that fucking song is that it is corny). Butler proves to have a subtle but biting wit throughout Black Up but it may take you a while to notice it through the fog of clicks, hisses, and snapping beats. The album ostensibly has battle rap tunes (“Yeah You”) and party songs (“Recollections of the Wraith”) but they’re presented in a way that reveals Butler to be a tireless tester of traditional song structures. It may be cliché to say that Black Up is like no other rap album I’ve heard, but it’s also the truth. Maybe Madvillainy is close.

Fans of more traditional hip-hop (even stuff like Atmosphere or Pharoahe Monch, whose new album is pretty good despite a guest appearance by the completely unnecessary Citizen Cope) might find Black Up a little baffling or possibly even a little infuriating at first and the real test of whether or not you’re gonna like it is the amount of time you’re willing to spend getting to know it. It’s taken me about a month of steady listening to finally decide I like the record and that might be a bit too much time for others to put in when they can get instant gratification elsewhere.

One of the questions I struggled with before Black Up completely won me over was whether or not it was possible to recognize something as an innovative, impressive piece of art and still not be all that enthusiastic about it. I think that’s basically how my wife feels about John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, an album that I fucking love. Obviously, it depends on the individual listener, but I decided that I definitely can. It wasn’t hard for me to understand immediately that Shabazz Palaces was doing something special with Black Up (hip-hop songs with distinct movements!) but I came to that conclusion well before I developed any desire to listen to the album for pleasure. As it is, I’m finding it pretty enjoyable on my headphones while it’s raining outside (maybe because Butler is a Seattlite), but it’s going to be hard-pressed to work its way into my party mix. It’s just not that kind of album to me. I guess what I’m saying is that whereas a lot of hip-hop albums are made to be consumed as loudly and publicly as possible, Black Up feels like a secret whispered in your ear and set to some wonderfully whack beats.