The second act of Doppelgängers, a January 2013 episode of popular NPR show This American Life, presents the research of author and journalist Alex Kotlowitz. Kotlowitz had been writing about inner-city blight and hardships for years when he learned about a program at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, which offered PTSD therapy to individuals from particularly violent neighborhoods. In the radio story, Kotlowitz interviewed an Afghanistan war veteran and a man from a rough area of North Philadelphia, looking for parallels in their life experiences and current mental stamina, and, not surprisingly, finding out that the symptoms of their psychological torment were nearly identical — for both men fitting perfectly with what’s clinically described as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Fragments of Pharaohe Monch’s latest could have as well scored the show. The fourth solo album from this unquestioned spoken word virtuoso, lyrical poet, and half of golden age rap group Organized Konfusion, is essentially a concept album about depression; the many circumstances that can bring it on, as well as its varied repercussions for people of different socioeconomic standings. The album comes as the third installment in Monch’s trilogy of “serious,” socially-conscious albums (though it would be hard to imagine Monch rapping about getting high on purple drank), together with 2007’s Desire and 2011’s W.A.R.. When it comes to the qualitative realization of its concept, however, PTSD brings a new quality to the rapper’s recent output. Especially compared to Monch’s somewhat disappointing previous LP, PTSD tackles its subject matter with both subtlety and substance, elaborating on the traumas of living in depreciated, crime-ridden environments, dealing with the unscrupulous behemoth of the music industry, and eventually that of experiencing war first hand.
As you might expect from Monch, the rapper is on top of his game lyrically; this makes for a big improvement in comparison to W.A.R.’s somewhat unimaginative rhymes. He’s long been known for complex wordplay and circuitous delivery, here dropping swift pun-bombs (“I saw more war than Warsaw, Poland”) and saxophone-solo-like tongue-twisters (”Put your snap back cap back, cap your capillaries like”). Monch’s sharp, angular flow is there too, and it works surprisingly well with the album’s dead-serious message; there’s nothing funny about PTSD. The way it coexists with the beats, however, is another thing, bringing to light PTSD’s biggest issue: the concept and the music do not always go hand in hand.
Nowhere is it more apparent than on first single “Damage,” where Monch’s against-the-tide rhyming disrupts the peppy flow of the beat, rather than reinforcing its momentum; in the hands of someone like Rick Ross the song could have shone brighter. The rest of the album struggles with unevenness, too, which further juxtaposes, and undermines, the lyrical cohesiveness of the effort. For instance, album highlight “Rapid Eye Movement,” guesting Roots’ Black Thought, has it all: a compelling, Illmatic-esque beat and great, cocky lines (“Vocally twice as magnifying as ever hearing Chewbacca scream through a megaphone with the significance of Dr. King”), tied together with appropriately left-field delivery. Other times, however, dated beats are paired with a questionable attempt to brag and diss (“Who put these pussies on top / Putting out that pussy music, call it pussy pop”) to, at best, mixed effect, ultimately suggesting that Pharaohe Monch still has the skills and the ideas, but maybe too little self-confidence to play the game completely by his own rules.