In the cult of personality that is hip-hop, sometimes a name says it all, summing up an artist’s mission, motives and methodology more accurately than a thousand press packets. Black Thought and Ol’ Dirty Bastard certainly come to mind. Yet, no name captures an artist more vividly than Pharoahe Monch, conveying not just mere superiority, but a larger than life majesty rooted in a romanticized golden era. Like the Pharaohs of old, his words resonate with equal parts domination and edification, and on W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) Monch sheds the gauze in which he was mummified on the cover of 2007’s Desire to deliver an impassioned revival.
“The Warning,” an ominous spoken introduction by Idris Elba sets the scene in a war ravaged 2023 when Pharoahe’s prescient screed is unearthed and sent back (presumably) to the present time to enlighten and uplift the tired huddled masses. It is thirty-one seconds into the second cut, “Calculated Amalgamation” before Monch unleashes his first verse, and it is delivered with a calm precision that belies the sonic armageddon of the track. As Monch rhymes with stoic focus, “The people are the majority/You can’t survive without us, you need us/Attitude never defeatist/Rebel, so please believe it’s/War in the streets of Egypt/My vocals a total eclipse/I’m Totalitarianism, you seek to mistreat us,” the juxtaposition proves more captivating than any amount of fire and brimstone.
W.A.R. moves seamlesly from the cerebral lyrical yoga of “Evolve” to the incendiary bombast of the title track without ever feeling undisciplined or scattershot. In fact, every song earns its identity as part of the whole. The rollicking call to arms of “Clap” gives way to the somber meditation of “Black Hand Side,” showing two sides of the same coin: an outburst of frustration bred of struggle, and a pean to the cultural strength instilled by the commonality of the fight. “Let My People Go,” Monch’s inevitable appropriation of the immortal spiritual avoids the potential land mine of corniness by setting up shop in the pulpit for an emceeing clinic. His performance is as notable for the virtuoso vocal inflections of the second verse as for the lyrical bludgeoning of the first, or that matter, his gospel inspired rendering of the familiar refrain that bridges them together. Even the rock tinged “Grand Illusion (Circa 1973) feels right at home, with Monch’s vocal dexterity allowing him to weave his way into the guitar heavy track like an instrument instead of being swallowed up by it as a lesser technician would.
While W.A.R. lacks a definitive single like “Simon Says” or a conceptual epic like “Trilogy,” it stands as Pharoahe Monch’s most focused and assured solo outing to date. At moments, the production may sound a bit generic, or the sung hooks a bit forced, but neither distract from the thematic and sonic cohesiveness of the project. The sheer ferocity of Monch’s rhyming is more than enough to bridge any gaps and plow through any detours. If, as the blogosphere has been quick to report, this is Pharoahe’s last stand, it isn’t so much a swan song as a pyramid in which the tenets of mic mastery and the rebellious power of hip-hop will be preserved for generations to come.