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“Fuck you know about struggle?” Pharoahe Monch’s bold but rhetorical query opens the title track to his fourth collection of lyrical land mines, PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The line dares the listener to keep tumbling down the rabbit hole with the Queens, NY MC as he tackles familiar themes of gun violence, heartbreak and redemption but this time in the first person.
In 2011 the rapper and singer born Troy Donald Jameson unyoked himself from the confines of record industry contracts and declared his independence. The aural record of his resistance, W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) sits as a testament to the resilience of a wordsmith dedicated to his evolution despite the odds. But his freedom came with a price.
"While W.A.R. was one of my best selling records and my first independent…I'm still spending for videos, marketing,” he explains of his tour of duty. Monch had released three albums as part of the group Organized Konfusion and two as a solo artist prior to W.A.R. "When you're independent you've got to get up in the morning, open that store, lift that gate. The traveling was exhausting. It left me drained.”
Monch has never made a secret of his battle with asthma and the lung disease literally came for this throat while recording one of “W.A.R.’s” standout songs, “Still Standing” featuring Jill Scott. But what some may not know is that, years before that incident his breaths almost stopped permanently.
“I was in the hospital for two weeks and they had me on steroid medications intravenously and one of the side effects is severe depression,” he reveals. “I didn't make the correlation to the meds until I was going four our five nights without sleeping.”
The depression was so severe that family friends had to stand watch over him fearing what he might do to himself. It wasn’t until a visit to the dentist that Monch was told that the combination of medications he was taking created the side effects, which included suicidal thoughts.
“I could feel the monkeys jumping off my back,” he says of the Dr.’s revelation. “I just melted on his desk and I started balling. I could breathe. I didn't know what was crippling me. I couldn't figure it out until he pointed it out.”
Experiences like these are what still motivate Pharoahe in the studio today. With the success of “W.A.R.” he knew that he could not let another long stretch of time pass before he gave his fans more music.
“One of the things I'm able to do is pull from my experiences,” he says of “Broken Again,” the first song recorded for what was originally to be an EP. Where Monch is usually either a confident romantic or a raunchy lothario on records about women, this song finds him surprisingly vulnerable in a place where he doesn’t have the answers.
“The story is metaphoric because the girl became an addiction. She helped me mask everything I was dealing with like a drug would do, and when it didn't work out it was hard for me to mend from that…”
“Broken Again” is complemented by equally introspective sonic time stamps like “Rapid Eye Movement” (featuring Black Thought) “D.R.E.A.M.” (featuring Talib Kweli and produced by Lee Stone) “The Jungle” and “Times2” produced by Marco Polo.
However, by the end of the album a sense of fear sets in that we’ve reached the end of a journey as well, that the demons from Monch’s dystopian nightmare have emerged victorious.
“If you listen to the skit at the end he gets charged into that facility and he's been there for a long time. When he wakes up the laws have changed and he's placed under arrest for what's in his head,” says Monch of the dystopian theme. “This is possibly my last Pharoahe Monch album.”
But what does ‘last’ mean for a meta-MC who habitually leaves self-referential Easter eggs linking his past and present like strands of DNA? On the aforementioned title track where he outlines his struggles with mortality he leaves us with a semblance of hope as he says, “do not despair, breathe, fight/ because there is more life to live believe.”
With self-preservation as a prime directive, Monch has finally made peace with his internal affairs and his desires. Having identified the impact the war has had on his psyche, the fight will continue but on his terms.
“To get in there and put my fuckin’ soul on these songs…that's what it's about.” - (Written By Jerry L. Barrow)