P.T.S.D. is complicated. Whether we are speaking of the harrowing mental illness or of Pharoahe Monch‘s fourth studio album, it remains that each experience is intense, full of more vision, and bursting with more thought than the average mind can handle. The variety and volume of Monch’s ideas throughout his first LP in four years (a short drought in Monch years) is staggering: P.T.S.D. is a project to drown in. It is an invaluable work to the patient–meaning both those who are meticulous and methodical, and those in need of some kind of healing release. With deep sonic versatility (gospel, boom-bap, psych rock), and thematic range (bruising, bruised, mending), P.T.S.D. acts viscerally on the listener and invites a visceral exploration as a return of the favor.
We meet the “hero” of the album–a semi-fictionalized Monch–in a state so frayed that he’s teetering on the edge of villainy. He’s panicking, having visions of vengefully “losing [his] mind in Times Square,” and Monch is chilling in this unhinged role. If it wasn’t for his utter mastery of emotive delivery, the line would never manage to land such sympathy while still evoking horror. Relating to his life’s pressures and their implicit effects, we begin to understand this narrator’s simultaneous compulsion to reach for a gun and his nausea at the thought of violence. Less than two minutes in to the album, Pharoahe has brought us to feel attached, even protective, of a potential mass murderer.
The full blow to the gut only deepens with the jittery second verse, when Monch’s more direct, sermonlike social commentary appears. “If [my] kid does not go to college, his life’s irrelevant,” Monch raps, pointing the first directly outward finger toward sources of his unfathomable stress: racism and classism. In the very next track, “Losing My Mind,” Monch again highlights the discrepancy between priorities in his community and those of the upper class, this time noting that his depression went unnoticed largely because “mental health…was more or less an issue for white families with wealth.” Instead of raising a pitchfork, or even P.T.S.D.‘s ever-present pistol, to the upper class, Monch uses this detail of his past to highlight the inner friction he felt as his depression grew in the face of his inability to self-diagnose.
It is also on “Losing My Mind” where we see one of this album’s premier examples of Monch’s ability to purely rhyme set to a grander task. “Saw more war than Warsaw, Poland,” he rhymes, playing with reversed language as he often does on P.T.S.D. (“Squeeze seven cc’s so I could see the seven seas” from “Broken Again” is another gem), before grounding the rhyme in an unforgivably brutal flashback: “viewed / An infant’s insides, outside of his body / Inside of a place of worship, ungodly.” Seeing this, we understand with greater gravity what so continually drives Monch’s character to paranoia and violence.
At this point in the album, we are, lyrically, more than acquainted with our narrator’s bloodshot visage and trembling trigger finger, but the music of P.T.S.D. doesn’t reflect the frenzy until “Damage.” Monch stated in his recent interview with us that the slow-building sound of P.T.S.D. is meant to test and reward the listener’s patience. While the richness of the album’s psychology is reward enough, there is nothing in recent memory quite as satisfying as “Damage”‘s beginning. “Oooh, listen to the way I–slay–your crew,” is far and away P.T.S.D.‘s most instantaneously catchy moment. The twisted glee of that first “Oooh,” is the mark of a master craftsman of intelligent entertainment. Monch manages to, in one moment, both kick off a pure, exuberant celebration of his prowess, (continued with “Bad MF”), while simultaneously introducing one of the album’s most biting satirical characters: the sentient bullet. “Damage,” brings America’s looseness with guns to task, specifically noting (with a gloriously sharp role-call) its significance in the black community, and does so with bombast, kicking off P.T.S.D.‘s raucous center.
“Bad MF,” a pure chest-thumper that some have noted as a departure from the album’s concept, sits next to “Rapid Eye Movement,” this album’s shrine to rhyming for the sake of it. When these two tracks are rubbed together, an important spark from “REM” ignites “Bad MF” into greater significance. “When the beat intensifies,” Monch raps, on “REM,” “I become emotionally desensitized.” This instantly paints “Bad MF” (and most of “REM” itself) as a study of the violently numbed mind. “Bad MF” does come directly after the particularly mortuary “Damage,” after all, so it only makes sense that, at that point, our hero needs a bit of a breather, however cartoonishly violent it may be. It is, then, of little coincidence that following Monch’s line on desensitization, he describes using Ma$e as a weapon to beat down the competition.
Once we enter “The Jungle,” P.T.S.D. has begun its plummet to rock bottom. While “The Jungle” could have succeeded simply by embodying the slums as a literal jungle, assigning each piece of his world a new jungle correspondent (“The cops are the cheetahs and the trees are the skyscrapers,”) instead, this song, like nearly all of Monch’s delicately composed cogs, works on multiple levels. Not only is Monch surprisingly hostile to those he often tries to reach–“Utilize your mind to define dimensions / Just then I lost the little monkey’s attention”–he also equates the struggle of violence in the hood to his personal and political war on over-prescriptive culture. With each step, P.T.S.D. sews its threads tighter.
On the soulful, wounded “Broken Again,” Monch lets his singing voice take center stage, and while it’s not half as compelling as his rapping, he is admirably successful at putting his foot in the door of entirely other genres. This song is the metaphorical recognizing and wallowing in his depression, but “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” is the moment Monch’s character looks squarely in the mirror, rubs his eyes, begins to understand, and eventually save himself. Though the hook is somewhat deflated, the words refresh like rain after a drought. The chief word among them: “live.” Propelled foreward by this repeated one-word mantra, Monch uses the track’s second verse to, in record time, again tie together a number of the album’s themes (“Life threw a brick through my window of opportunity…When asthma attacks the black community”), bring himself to the edge of suicide, and pull himself back with an invocation of life: “Do not despair, breathe, fight / For there is more life to live, believe.” Having conquered P.T.S.D.‘s pits of despair, Monch deserves to wield such weighty, optimistic words.
The Pharoahe gives his newfound optimism a few more minutes to breathe on “D.R.E.A.M.” which plays all the proper celebratory notes. Regrettably, Talib Kweli arrives to push the track off of its tightrope walk between earnest and corny, landing it, with his gratingly rigid cameo, somewhere near after-school special territory. Luckily, Monch sticks P.T.S.D.‘s landing on “Eht Dnarg Noisulli,” a final, insightful warning about the world’s overarching corruption and corrosion. “Their only contribution to the world is a delusion / Which has no physical power, I offer you a solution / Pharoahe Monch,” he rhymes, speaking truth: among all of the lyrical acrobatics and thematic mosaics, one of P.T.S.D.‘s grandest gestures is its offer of its creator’s soul. Personal and universal, clear and complicated, Pharohe Monch’s latest effort is an achievement in almost innumerable ways. It’s an expertly composed embodiment and analysis of mental illness performed so deftly that listeners are all but forced to evolve their thinking on the subject by album’s end. P.T.S.D. is worth its weight in flashbacks.
Best Tracks: “Times2,” “Damage,” “Rapid Eye Movement,” and “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
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