For my money’s worth, I consider Pharoahe Monch one of, if not the most underrated rapper of all-time. Too intellectual and lyrically sound to ever get significant radio airplay, yet too hardcore for casual hip-hop fans who think hip-hop should be all optimism, positivity and jovial, tubby, ?uestlove, Pharoahe has always been tough to classify. Sure, most hard-core rap fans have followed Pharoahe dating back to his days in Organized Konfusion, but beyond that his prodigious skills have long been one of hip-hop’s best kept secrets, save for the occasional show-stopping turn on “Oh No” and maybe, “Simon Says.”

To add insult to injury, Pharahe spent the last seven years trapped in label hell, following the release of 1999’s underground classic, Internal Affairs. While former Rawkus labelmate Mos Def went on to become a Hollywood thespian and Kweli gradually expanded his fanbase with every album, Monch languished on the sidelines, his stunningly complex flow gathering dust while rappers with a fraction of his talent went platinum . Now I’m not that naive. I realize that Pharoahe won’t ever go platinum, especially not in today’s music industry climate. But in a just world, Pharoahe would have released at least three well-regarded solo albums and would be on everyone’s shortlist in discussions for best rapper alive.

But he isn’t and in a rap world where people actually honestly debate whether or not L’il Wayne is the best rapper, there would seem to be little room for Pharoahe (at least from the monetary side of things). So its probably best not to tell that to Steve Rifkind, who recently signed Monch to his SRC records imprint and claims to be finally releasing Desire, Monch’s long-awaited follow-up to Internal Affairs, sometime in the coming months.

In the meantime, we have The Awakening, a mixtape Pharoahe released just two weeks ago, that seemed to have gotten lost in the end of the year shuffle. A stunning display of his still razor sharp skills, the effort was easily one of the best mixtapes released in 06. Granted it is a mixtape and therefore it lacks the originality and fully honed concepts of an LP. At times Pharoahe spits over some of Busta Rhymes’ Big Bang instrumentals, including the stellar “Pain”, where Pharoahe’s lyrical gymnastics tumble smoothly over the haunting Dre keys of “Goldmine.” Another song “We Must Be in Love” is a direct re-working of a Pharoahe track from J Dilla’s The Shining. While the throbbing paranoid “Agent Orange” dates back to 2003.

The leading cliche about Pharoahe is that he’s a ghetto preacher, and this description seems fitting listening to the mixtape as Pharoahe rocks and sways, ranting and raving like a frenzied evangelist, sweat dripping on his brow, as he commands the congregation. Despite its mixtape status, the subject matter isn’t just punchlines and shit-talking. Monch tackles subjects as broad as the Iraq war and his suicidal thoughts at having his career snuffed out from under him. The beats themselves are all solid, the majority of the non Big Bang beats being old Rhythm and Blues samples, full of lively swaggering horns, perfectly complementing Pharoahe’s soulful voice.

With Desire on the horizon, heads would be remiss to sleep on Pharoahe, who seems revitalized after his long unplanned layoff. If The Awakening is any indictator, Pharoahe’s skills remain in the upper echelon of MC’s working today. The mixtape and Pharoahe’s stellar back catalogue are all highly recommended. You can get the torrent here for free. Otherwise download these album tracks.

Download:
MP3: Pharoahe Monch-“Let’s Go”
Mp3: Pharoahe Monch-“Agent Orange”

Bonus:
MP3: Organized Konfusion-“Stress”

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