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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