There’s a sense of apocalyptic grandeur to Pharoahe Monch’s latest, framed by actor Idris Elba’s vivid soliloquies. Of course, there’s an argument that a Pharoahe Monch LP deserves this sort of grand scale: Since parting company with Prince Po in 1997 (the two formed the seminal hip-hop duo Organized Konfusion), his output has been an exercise in quality over quantity, the sizeable downtime between each of his three solo albums justified only by their sheer class. Few tongues twist with as much tang as Monch’s, his rapid-fire flow and intricate wordplay ensuring he stands out as one of hip-hop’s most genuinely extraordinary talents. With W.A.R. (We Are Renegades), he’s on similarly spellbinding form, raging against society’s shortcomings and hip-hop’s countless ills in matchless Monch fashion.
W.A.R. is Monch’s blockbuster, a marathon sci-fi tale set in some grisly faraway cacotopia. Each cut boasts tremendously clean production, with wailing guitar solos, rich strings, and grand cathedral choirs forging a powerful sound (as on “Calculated Amalgamation” and especially “The Grand Illusion”). Elba’s dialogue works well, too, placing the album in a fictional world somewhere between Blade Runner and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta comics.
To call W.A.R. a concept album would be lazy though. Yes, Monch may assume the role of an assassin sent to emancipate free-thinking after years of global indoctrination, and he may be rapping from a fascist totalitarian state circa 2013, but the issues he addresses are very much relevant to the here and now. His rhymes don’t dabble in obscure frames of reference or conform to an overly cryptic lexicon: “Let My People Go” berates the lack of substance in contemporary hip-hop, while “Shine” and “The Hitman” tackle the state of the industry and the media moguls that control the airwaves.
From here, Monch’s tirades get bigger and bolder, as he teams up with likeminded fire-starter Immortal Technique (who’s relegated to snarling a jarringly hostile refrain) for the relentless title track in which mercy and restraint are checked at the door. Here, Monch takes fire at whatever piques his interest, which happens to be everything from headless chickens to contaminated water to society’s collective dumbing down. There’s an air of cynicism in some quarters the album, but the Queens MC thankfully never comes across as too smug or preachy. And though “W.A.R.” is the collection’s most scornful tirade by some distance, it’s not representative of the entire album. The futuristic assassin shtick is used largely to emphasize and caricature Monch’s views on today’s music and the wider world. On one hand, this guise helps to veil the ferocity behind his barbed messages, while on the other it adds a sense of do-or-die gravity to his prose.
“Evolve” is nothing if not a glowing example of Monch’s superb skill on the mic, and should be ranked among the finest bouts of wordplay to ever cross a console. He raps, “Grade school mathematics examining thugs/They discuss Bloods, Crips, techs jamming, and drugs/I speak of world peace, war, famine, and floods/Watching Pan’s Labyrinth while I’m unraveling bud/Gambling on the next rapper to die in the hood.” When he eventually decides to come up for air, it’s only so that the listener can digest the flurry of staggering witticisms, only to launch another volley of astounding rhymes a few bars later. He goes on to single out one particular imposter to the coveted hip-hop throne, sparking another contorted stream of consciousness, all the while taking strides toward seizing that throne for himself. On the evidence of this track in particular, Monch is peerless.