After including a nine-minute trilogy song on 2007’s slept-on Desire, it shouldn’t be surprising that polysyllabic pyrotechnic Pharoahe Monch would get a little prog-y on his follow-up, but who thought it’d be a full-blown future-war concept album? In true prog fashion, the concept of W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) itself is a little shaky—it has something to do with a war started in 2013 and 197 assassins and secret files and the time-space continuum, I think—and the thematic underpinning is abandoned on a whim whenever Monch finds any topic more compelling to rap about, which is early and often. Not necessarily a great narrative rapper, Monch’s lyrical strength lies in his ability to flip phrases maniacally and tease out tangential theoretical connections through his staggered, pile-up rhyme schemes. Though Monch has the reputation of being a “rapper’s rapper,” which can be a commercial kiss of death and is undoubtedly why Monch albums are such a rare occurrence, he’s never difficult or willfully obtuse; his complicated patterns and metaphors come in stuttering bursts of idiomatic passion. He’s a legend for the right reasons and an outcast for the wrong ones.
On the slow-burning standout “Evolve” a reflective Monch quips, “Sadomasochist MC, I bite myself,” and at times that statement feels less like a clever punchline and more like a piece of trenchant self-criticism. The album is packed with references to rebellion—spiritual and political—but regression is the real game here. Beginning with a garbled frontline message from Idris Elba (aka Stringer Bell himself, doing his best Terminator-era Michael Biehn impression), the album finds the verbally spry Monch rapping over post-apocalyptic boom-bap, screeching guitars, squeaky organs and soul samples.
Toward the end of the album’s hard-hitting first single, “Clap (One Day),” featuring workman-like production from Australian producer M-Phazes—inexplicably given four songs on the album—the beat drops out, and Monch raps over nothing but the sound of clapping hands, calling himself “systematically pissed.” It’s a bracing explosion on an album that too often feels in the pocket. And, when the production does veer from Monch’s nostalgic comfort zone, things get scary. The less said about the hazy Citizen Cope collaboration “The Grand Illusion (Circa 1973)” the better.
Though it makes claims about forward-thinking themes, this is still a ’90s sonic throwback with grumpy lyrical tendencies—seriously, Monch is still taking shots at “cellphone” rappers—but these moments of “get off my lawn” fury give the album an anti-swag swagger. “The Hitman” sees Monch bitching about record contracts (“Now it’s rap till you’re 60 for contracts 360”) and label fat cats (“Artists are left with zero, you know who received the riches”) with enough zeal to forgive the inside-baseball lingo. Later, on the triumphant Antwone Fisher-referencing “Still Standing,” Monch raps, “I have no dead bodies to claim, never been a trigger-man/Crack, never pedaled that, opposite of Jigga-man/Double my expectancy, can you believe it?/Look no bullet wounds, no paraplegic.” Yet, this music sounds like it comes from a wounded place. There’s no doubt that Monch’s fights with the record industry have left him scarred. He’s lost his share of battles, but hopefully he wins the war.