Jun 5, 2014

Opinion - PTSD by Pharoahe Monch album review by Niles Cavanaugh

They mad cause they cant stop me/Cause I said F*ck swag I got moxie/Lyrical ecstasy, I got that oxy/-contin poppin they can't carbon copy or mock me." - from Bad MF

To me personally, it's always refreshing when a veteran MC throws down the gauntlet in today's hip-hop climate and comes out with a hard hitting song with top notch lyrics and a quality beat. It's like a village finding out that the town volcano once thought to be dormant is ready to erupt. In this case, it's season Queens emcee Pharaoh Monch who is back with a vengeance with his current offering PTSD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Monch has had a peculiar career. In a market where rappers release albums every two years (if not every year) and pad the time between official releases with a plethora of mixtapes and guest appearances, Pharoahe Monch (born Troy Donald Jamerson) is more willing to take time and craft each album at his own pace. Despite being active since 1987, Monch has only released three albums as a member of Organized Konfusion and four solo albums. Even PTSD was orifinially supposed to be an EP with the lead single Damage being released in September 2012. Instead the album was reworked and released in April 2014. While I'm always eager to hear the most material possible from a lyricist of Monch's caliber, I also understand that the brisket takes 15 hours to cook is more satisfying the the hot dog microwaved in 60 seconds.

PTSD was completely worth the two year wait. It acts as a companion piece to his 2011 album W.A.R. (We Are Renegades named after his label). Certain themes such as poverty, gun violence, Black experience and struggle, and dystopia by way of oppressive government are common threads that pull together both albums. PTSD however deals with a couple of new extremely important themes: mental health and drug addiction in the Black community. Monch weave a loose yet coherent narrative through 17 tracks.

The Recollection Facility is an album intro that introduces the concept of a facility that will extract traumatic memories, thus fixing the patient’s life.  

Time2 sets the tone for the rest of the album.  It introduces the protagonist who is suffering from PTSD and also deals with everyday problems and plants a seed by mentioning prescription medication he takes and their side effects (which was inspired by Monch’s real life experience with asthma medication.)

Losing My Mind features Denaun Porter on the hook (formerly of D12) and continues the somber mood.  It really talks in depth on the topic of Black mental health and the erroneous and common way that mental health is “... more or less an issue for white families with wealth.”  This a deep and vital topic that hasn’t been explored in hip hop very much and is being introduced by way of a larger narrative.  

Heroin Addict  sees Monch channelling his inner Hendrix over guitar riffs.  Only a minute long, it serves as a bridge of sorts to the next song.  Kind of wish this was longer but it serves its purpose.

Damage brilliantly uses an LL Cool J interpolation in the hook and is the third of songs Pharoahe Monch has made that are told from the point of view of a bullet.  Even if you haven’t heard the previous installment, you should be thoroughly impressed with this chapter.  This was the first song released from the album, back in 2012.  Told you Monch takes his time.

Bad MF  asks the question ‘Who put these p*ssies on top?/Playing that p*ssy music/ Call it p*ssy pop.’  This is grandiose braggadocio that is a cornerstone of any rapper’s arsenal at some point.  While it doesn’t connect to the story, it serves as a lead single and has the most mass appeal and has a bombastic beat crafted by Lee Stone worthy of being blasted from any car stereo.  Flagship song of the album.

The Recollection Facility Pt. 2 is another interlude.  This one sees the disembodied voice at the recollection facility reminding the character that his dreams ‘cannot change reality’ and urges him to wake up, which sets the table for the next song.

Rapid Eye Movement is my favorite song on the album and is similar to Bad MF only instead of telling you that he’s a dope MC, Monch shows you why with lyrical dexterity rarely seen over what I can describe as almost a secret agent 007-ish beat.  Lee Stone does it again on the boards.  It also features Black Thought of The Roots who almost steals the show again (as he usually does) and matches Monch’s lyrical acrobatics.  W.A.R. Media chief of staff Satori Ananda told me how dope this song was months ago and it totally lives up.  Again, this song doesn’t necessarily fit into the overall story, but it doesn’t take away from the vibe or cohesiveness.

Scream returns to the story and uses a rock inspired beat.  In an interview with Shawn Serato of Rap Genius, Monch mentioned that some of the album’s musical elements were inspired by legendary bands such as Led Zeppelin and King Crimson.  This is especially noticeable here.  It’s almost shocking how complex lyricism can match such eclectic influences in the production, but Pharoahe Monch seamlessly pulls it off.

Sidefx is an interlude that mocks oft-seen medication commercials which advertise a cure for some sort of common ailment yet have a barrage of horrifying side effects.  In this case, it’s a steroid inhaler for asthma.  Since the album mentions prescription drugs at different points, this small skit ties in rather well.

The Jungle compares living in the hood with living in a jungle.  While this isn't new ground for hip hop and has been used by other emcees before, it hasn't been done for an entire song and is actually very effective in explaining the ills that come with living in the hood and fits in with the overall themes and ambiance.  Witty metaphors have a deep and socially conscious meeting in this almost surprisingly well-crafted track.

“Broken Again” features Pharoahe Monch singing on the hook.  Normally I’d hate to hear this.  Rappers and singers lately seem to try to cross pollinate in each other’s fields to mixed results.  But when it comes to the album and story, it actually fits in and I don’t mind it at all.  It isn’t convoluted or overly sappy and paints a harrowing picture of heroin addiction.  Masterfully done all around.

“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” continues with the previous trend of rapper singing.  I’d say it’s redundant to a degree having two songs with similar vibes back to back.  BUT this song advances the story so I guess it’s cool.  Whereas the last song was filled with melancholy despair, this one offers a small glimmer of hope.  Also, I failed to mention previously that Monch doesn’t have a horrible or grating singing voice by any stretch of the imagination so him singing hooks isn’t that bad.

D.R.E.A.M. features Talib Kweli and is easily the most upbeat and happy-sounding song on the whole album.  This features an Otis Redding sample and has potential as a possible single and video.  Its rare where you get a feel-good and radio-friendly song with a relevant guest appearance that is also lyrically uncompromising and thematically substantial.  Kweli continues his hot streak that started last year and fits in smoothly on an album that doesn’t otherwise rely on guest appearances.  Probably my favorite track.

The Recollection Facility Pt. 3 is the final and most grim of the interludes, which is saying something.  The disembodied voice says that 10 years have passed and the protagonist is sentenced to life imprisonment for free thinking in a dystopian society.  Yeesh.

Eht Dnarg Noisulli is literally The Grand Illusion spelled backwards.  The Stepkids assist on the hook.  It serves as a nice wrap up to the album, tying together all of the themes previously explored.  It’s like a Sparknotes for the album.  Despite pretty bleak and heavy themes, the song is still lovely sounding mainly due to the airy dreamscape of a beat.  They really finish strong with this one. Except...

Stand Your Ground is the obligatory bonus track that is found on almost all hip hop albums.  It doesn't have anything to do with the story of the album.  It was released last July as a response to the horrible verdict in the case of George Zimmerman murdering Trayvon Martin in cold blood.  It’s still very good and serves as a call to activism of sorts.  Monch sums up feelings that many people had about the case when he says “That could have been my brother.”  Serves as a complimentary piece musically and lyrically to the album despite not being directly connected to the story.

There you have it.  I've been waiting on this album for quite some time and it lived up to all of my expectations.  I actually wound up taking awhile to write this (school and work obligations dried up my pool of free time) and when I came back to listen to it a month and a half later, the album still resonated.  If anything, it got better the more I listened.  It dealt with important social issues that not only don’t get talked about much, but also did it in story form.  Often with albums, you can rearrange the tracklist mentally to improve the flow and spacing. PTSD doesn't need that at all.  And it’s not even because of the narrative, it’s just wonderfully paced.  That includes the interludes and bonus track.  To be honest, the heavy topics and mostly somber tone won’t be for everyone.  This is the antithesis of turn up music.  It’s a very deep album and if you’re not willing to really think about lyrics outside of crappy Fabolous-like punchlines, you may want to sit this one out.  The only other possible issue was that some of the strongest songs (Damage, Bad MF, Rapid Eye Movement kind of, and Stand Your Ground) aren’t the ones that are a direct part of the story.  But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter.  Pharoahe Monch created an innovative piece of art.  It’s this year’s “Because The Internet” for the boom-bap set, only with no drop off during the last third.  All killer no filler.

Niles Rating: 4.75 out of 5.

Multimedia Journalist, Founder and Chief Editor of WTM Host of A-Side B-Side Podcast and more. I like to talk about stuff and write it down. Sometimes to a microphone. Either way, I need you to feel this.

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