The strongest tracks here stand tall, ensuring Monch remains a powerful rap force.
Sam Hesketh 2011
Likely to be forever known as the rapper that brought the world Simon Says back in 1999, Pharoahe Monch has struggled to live up to his debut album's hype and, having waited four years to bring out third LP W.A.R., has heaped pressure atop himself to deliver a bona-fide stormer. Sadly, that’s something he hasn't fully managed to do.
There are plenty of high points here. The Wire's Idris Elba introduced proceedings, informing the listener that in 2023 everything we've known to be true has changed and that what is about to be played through the speakers is a warning. What follows is a Black Milk-esque track with dusty snares rolling around strings as Monch delivers a diatribe declaring there was "one shot fired, inspired by hope to arouse a nation", and that he is the renegade. The title-track, produced by Marco Polo, is more like what fans have come to expect from the former Organized Konfusion man. Focused and angry, Monch states he’s "got a middle finger for mass media" and submits himself as a guilty man if "intellect is a crime".
With lyrical content consistently confrontational throughout the record, the production is extremely important – and it is here that the album is periodically let down. The more soulful tracks, such as Halie Selassie Karate and Still Standing, sound at odds with the powerful and bitter vocals that feature elsewhere, despite Jill Scott’s presence on the latter number. The beat on Clap (One Day), produced by Australian M-Phazes, shows how best to counter this, with head-nodding drums and turntable scratches riding under Monch's rapping. He switches his style on Let My People Go, taking a toned-down approach but still delivering a rallying call.
Two tracks towards the end of W.A.R. really showcase what Monch is all about. The Hitman, with a beat he would have chosen 10 years ago, finds him lamenting popular culture in 2011, second-guessing a lack of radio play due to politics and sonically shaking his head: "It's kinda hard / Let's release sex tapes so we can become stars." Assassins features a show-stealing opening verse from Jean Grae as well as able support from Slaughterhouse member Royce da 5’9", waking the listener up after a mid-album lull.
When he excels Monch is a fun rapper to listen to, yet there are times during this album where the production disappointingly jars against his vocals. That being said, its strongest tracks stand tall and proud, demanding an audience and reminding everyone that when he tells you to get the f*** up, he's not playing around. Time to get those legs working and those fists pumping.