Hip-hop is regional. Sure, you’ll find kids in Brooklyn blasting 2pac in their jeeps, or maybe when you’re on Crenshaw Boulevard you’ll find people wearing their Wu-Tang Clan shirts. Hip-hop is more wide-spread than ever, but if you’re a purist, then you can be damn sure there’s at least a small part of you that has a specific soft spot for an artist from your hometown. As a Queens native (technically Long Island, but who’s double-checking) I admit I’ve always had a special kind of affinity for Queens-based emcees, and who’s to blame. Queensbridge rappers like Nas and Mobb Deep stuck out in New York’s bustling hardcore hip-hop scene, cause of their secret handshake style that was indigenous to their hood. Of even more regional merit for me though, Queens happens to house one of the most unique rappers in the game, whose career has been one of the genre’s most unsung.
Pharoahe Monch is a rapper’s rapper. A rapper who puts as much thought into his words, as he does his delivery, and always delivers verses that are intelligent, unpredictable, and fully engaging. Starting out in the legendary hip-hop duo Organized Konfusion (with the similarly underappreciated rapper Prince Po), he helped pave the way for more progressive lyricists in the rap world such as Company Flow and MF Doom. Unfortunately, despite remaining a critics darling, Organized Konfusion didn’t receive a wide audience, due to their heady concepts and fairly inaccessible production.
When he went solo with 1999’s Internal Affairs, however, the rapper scored his first big opportunity for mainstream success. Featuring more maximalist beats, an invigorated and more enraged flow from Pharoahe Monch, and a slew of guest appearances from hip-hop heavy-weights, Internal Affairs may just have the chance at being the hit record his devoted fanbase had been wanting for a while. In a way it was, as it was his most successful album sales wise moving over 200,000 copies, and it spawned the Hot 100 hit “Simon Says”, which is still played in clubs today. Still, the album eventually went out of print due to Pharoahe Monch’s refusal to record for Geffen Records, which eventually acquired the album’s initial label Rawkus, and Internal Affairs isn’t exactly considered as important a rap record from the era as say Jay-Z’s Blueprint or Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP.
Hearing Internal Affairs now, however, it still sounds as vital as ever. While many critics were quick to point out that Pharoahe Monch had adopted an angrier rap persona for his solo debut, those that really listened to Organized Konfusion could tell that he was always a fairly pissed-off rapper. It’s just here he’s working with more polished production, and often keeping his cadence on par with his guest rappers (particularly on the track “No Mercy” which features the uber-gangsta duo that is M.O.P.). It is a rough album for sure though, as Pharoahe Monch makes it clear that he’ll risk making listeners uncomfortable if it means spitting dope-ass rhymes. The song “Rape” uses sexual assault metaphors to describe Monch’s lyrical mastery. “Grab the drums by the waistline/ I snatch the kick, kick the snares and sodomize the bassline.” It was a song that got at least a modicum of controversy upon the album’s release, but Monch’s lyrics are so witty, and his delivery so impressive, that it’s actually fairly easy to forgive him for making some rape jokes.
The album’s format is actually fairly aligned with that of other rap albums of the time, as it has it’s club banger (“Simon Says”), a raunchy sex rap (“The Ass”), a soulful love song (“The Light”), an introspective closer (“The Truth”), and the star-studded remixed bonus track (“Simon Says (Remix)”). It’s just Pharoahe Monch is in a very different sphere of influence from that of his rap brethren, and is able to make the most common rap hip-hop cliché seem fresh. As Pharoahe raps on the album’s intro track “Every syllable of mine is an umbilical cord through time/For the sick typical N***gas who choose to pick pitiful rhymes.” Yep, just about sums it up, don’t it?
As stated previously, I shamelessly wear a sense of pride that this album comes from a Queens-based artist, but even if Monch repped another borough I’d still be a big fan of it. It’s exactly the type of grimy-yet-cerebral hip-hop that I live for, and I would love to see this guy collaborate with Run the Jewels in the future. While Monch has released three other strong albums after Infernal Affairs, this record remains the ideal introduction point for the rapper’s ridiculously unique style. Coming out a year after Black Star’s self-titled debut, Internal Affairs was continuing the trend of trying to make a conscious rap record with extensive marketable appeal, in the years leading up to Kanye West’s The College Dropout. Many would say West’s debut album perfected that model, but if that’s the case, then Infernal Affairs may just be the most integral (and hidden) building block that Yeezy needed to get to that level.