ip-hop history is littered with MC’s blessed with scythe-sharp flows and Byzantine lyrics who couldn’t pick out a dope beat if their life depended on it (see also Kass, Ras). Now I wouldn’t go as far as to lump Pharoahe Monch in with the tin-eared rabble, but over the course of five albums and 16 years, Pharoahe has produced just one single capable of cracking Billboard’s Top 100. And even that lone quasi-hit, 1999’s ”Simon Says,” peaked at #97.
Of course, with most rappers, an inability to select mammoth show-stopping beats would be the death-knell. Imagine T.I. stripped of Just Blaze and Toomp’s trunk-rattling bangers, or the Game without his Dre-aping cadre of no-names. But with Pharoahe, it almost doesn’t matter. After all, the mark of a great rapper isn’t what he does with a banging beat, it’s what he does with a mediocre one.
With the exception of maybe Ghostface, few rappers in history have ever successfully transcended ho-hum soundscapes better than Pharoahe. With a knack for clever similes (“leave you die laughing like John Ritter”), complicated internal rhyme schemes (“Pharoahe’s flows blow shows like afros”), and a voice that rocks and sways with the hell-fire and brimstone cadence of a Pentecostal preacher, the beats very often take a backseat. And rightfully so.
In that vein, Desire, Pharoahe’s long-anticipated return to the rap world after a near decade hiatus, is very much a mixed bag. Beat-wise nothing stands on its own merits, lacking the grimy cohesion of Pharoahe’s self-produced Organized Konfusion jaunts and the straight-out-of-the-bowels of hell turmoil of Internal Affairs. Constructed by a hodge-podge of producers, from underground leading light Black Milk, to Alchemist, to long-time collaborator Lee Stone, to Kon Artis from D-12, to Monch himself, Desire’s successes stem chiefly from Pharoahe’s unimpeachably brilliant rhyme skills.
Where Internal Affairs felt like the work of a deranged sociopath bent on murder and mayhem, Desire feels almost tranquil in comparison. Of course, Monch’s penchant for conspiracy mongering is still indulged: Citbank is watching over you, the Klan is somehow involved with clearing music samples, the United States is controlled by a Masonic conspiracy, etc. And there’s still gun talk a-plenty, with “When the Gun Draws” revamping the Organized Konfusion classic “Stray Bullet,” as Pharoahe somehow sounds fresh in spite of the tired trope of rapping from a gun’s perspective.
But Desire is so much more than a mere rehash of past glory, thanks to Monch’s ability to balance his cerebral paranoia with a healthy dose of experimentation. Celebratory first single “Push,” provides one of the album’s most satisfying moments (even if it could use a bit more rapping), with Pharoahe enlisting Tower of Power to lace the track with a swaggering and soulful slice of East Bay Soul. “Desire,” the album’s second single moves with similarly funky rhythms. On it, Pharoahe sounds the most sanguine he’s ever been, triumphantly declaring victory over his demons and label woes. Even “Body Baby,” the record’s maligned third single succeeds, as Pharoahe manages to turn something that could’ve resembled Gnarls Barkley at their worst, into a modest triumph.
Sure, it’s not all perfect. A skit about “the stranger” (yes, that stranger) head-scratchingly concludes the end of “Let’s Go.” The Soulquarian, Erykah Badu-assisted funk of “Hold On” shows why Badu shouldn’t be allowed within 100 feet of great rappers. A Milk production on “Bar Tap” shamelessly appropriates Premier’s brilliant beat for “Betrayal.” And don’t even get me started on the nine-and-a-half minutes of “Trilogy,” which manages to indulge in some Love Below-esque levels of wankery.
But despite its flaws, this record is—and will remain—better than 99.9 percent of all rap albums released this year. Once again devoid of a perfect booming beat capable of snatching radio airplay, Monch isn’t about to escape the subterranean rap ghetto anytime soon. But Desire will satisfy anyone seeking intricately constructed and brilliantly spit verses from one of the best rappers to ever do it. Hell, it’s a Pharoahe Monch album in the year 2007. What else do you desire?