A landmark year for hip-hop was 1999, with Eminem's major label debut, The Slim Shady LP. The New York rapper Pharoahe Monch also released his first solo album, Internal Affairs, which received plaudits for its thoughtful lyrics and clever wordplay. Yet while Eminem began his rise, Monch's career became trapped in contract limbo. Unable to extricate himself from his record deal, the artist was prevented from recording until he was allowed to move last year to Street Records Corporation, the home to Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep. So, a mere eight years later, Monch is finally able to release his follow-up, Desire.
And what a return it is – funky, upbeat and bursting with ideas. It tackles gun crime and Iraq, not to mention his own creative survival. There is even, in the single "Body Baby", a peculiar Elvis Presley pastiche.
Monch looks relaxed as he eases into a sofa at his label's London office. "The hiatus hasn't hurt me at all. In fact, it has helped because it means this record is so impactful," he says with Zen-like calm.
"I could have put out seven albums in that time, but that would not have had the same impact. People are gonna hear a fresh new sound." He fidgets with an asthma inhaler. "It's natural for humans to return to the past, and that means we understand more about the future, but I'm really trying to live in the now. It's not like I've struggled to make this album, but the powers that be knew what was needed."
What befell Monch was harsh. His original label Rawkus hit the buffers when its parent company folded and its roster was bought by the much bigger Geffen. Monch, though, preferred a deal from Eminem's Shady Records, who refused to stump up the compensation demanded by the rapper's new bosses after the success of the party anthem "Simon Says". So Monch effectively went on strike until he was released.
So for the best part of a decade, Monch, or Troy Jamerson to his parents, has kept in touch with his fans by touring, "like how real artists make their money," he deadpans. Meanwhile, his guest appearances could have made a double album in themselves: he's worked with everyone from De La Soul through Linkin Park to a remix of Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" that pokes fun at Paris Hilton. He also wrote for P Diddy's Press Play album.
"I played him some of my new material and he was blown away," the rapper shrugs. "Just as I was blown away by his music. The offer to work with him did come out of leftfield, but it took me out of my box. People don't expect me to work with Puff, but I'm really unconventional. I get into things because I love music."
Diddy was so impressed that he offered Monch a deal, but the latter wanted his comeback album to be more than a mere hip-hop release. Not only would he rap, he would also sing over a variety of musical styles from funk to gospel. "I needed to work with people that understood the complete record and allowed me to put out singles to familiarise listeners with where I'm at. I was scared to sign with a label that wanted to change what I wanted."
Monch's inspiration is Kanye West's second album Late Registration. "Kanye has won a slew of Grammys, got acclaim and sold a lot of records, because he wanted to do better than College Dropout, so he hired a musician as his co-producer. I wanted to push myself and I'm a perfectionist, but there's people out there more accomplished musically than I am."
West relied on the talents of Jon Brion, the composer of Grammy-nominated film scores for Magnolia and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Brion had also produced for Fiona Apple and his ex-girlfriend Aimee Mann. The Queens rapper, meanwhile, met the producer, and member of Eminem's D12 posse Denaun Porter, part way through the five years he spent planning Desire. Porter decided it needed live instrumentation, so "Body Baby" has an organic feel at odds with today's productions.
"He embodied the spirit of the album," Monch admits. "He didn't just produce the record, he produced my vocals. He'd tell me when I needed to write a bridge for a particular track. It was like being in a gym when you need a trainer to tell you to do one more, one more." Some tracks were nailed in a few weeks, while others were developed over six months. It was a culture shock for an exponent of classic hip-hop. "I was used to doing songs in three hours," he chuckles. "It was interesting to perfect something and try singing and I had all the time in the world. I was working with the best producers and greatest singers without the pressure of a record deal."
In the end, Desire is a diverse record that encompasses gospel strains on "Free", soulful funk on "Push" and pared-down beats on "When the Gun Draws". "I can put anything in a verse, but if the feeling isn't there in the music... Vocally, I wanted to try different styles, even what you hear in Bond films. When I say vocals, people think I mean catchy choruses, but even with quieter songs, I can get my message across."
Monch could have called in a hefty amount of favours, but instead has limited guest spots. There are vocals from the soulster Erykah Badu on "Hold On". For live horns on "Push", meanwhile, he approached none other than the veteran funk outfit Tower of Power. "I took time working out how I wanted the album to sound, so I was able to choose people to take particular roles." Despite its sonic variety, the album holds together well, thanks mainly to Monch's lyrical vision that treats desire as a force for good. The yearning is for empowerment and self-emancipation, whether that means control of your creative talents or in dealing with the States' shocking gun-crime figures.
"When the Gun Draws" is in part a protest song against the US government's gun-control policy, told sternly from the point of view of a bullet. Indeed, Monch has been on speaking tours to talk about the subject in colleges and supports a scheme whereby kids can swap weapons for film cameras.
"Having grown up in the hood, I've seen and heard of a couple of incidents and had friends murdered. And particularly of late we've had crimes perpetrated by the police. There's a lot of anger around, but I figured that you're not going to change the mind of an 18-year-old. Instead, you can go into communities and speak to eight-year-olds, when they're more impressionable. Or you've got those kids at colleges; they're the next leaders and our security."
Pharoahe Monch's album 'Desire' is out now on IslandReuse content