Few musical genres are as polarising as rap. I know numerous music fans who are open to experimenting with genres, even if it means going beyond their comfort zones, but aren’t as open-minded when it comes to rap. For them, rap is often simply no-go territory. Part of the problem stems from the culture of hip hop, of which rap is a part.
Though the musical genre described as hip hop originated in the Bronx in the mid-1970s, primarily among African-Americans, hip hop is actually a larger term that encompasses music (rap and turntablism), dance and art (including graffiti). For many music enthusiasts, such a culture does not resonate.
One reason why rap tends to polarise is the nature of the lyrics. Rap is a spoken-word style of vocalisation—and the lyrics tend to be explicit. It is not uncommon to have gratuitous and graphic references to sex, violence, misogyny, drugs and crime in rap compositions. Violence against women, intolerance of homosexuality, overt promotion of drugs and alcohol, are more often than not themes that recur in rap songs.
That sort of thing gives the genre a bad rap. Apologies for the bad pun but it is true. The trend of violence, sex and drug themed lyrics may have started emerging in rap in the mid-1980s, when gangsta rap, whose lyrics reflected the life and values of street gangs, drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes, emerged. Those themes soon became a staple for rappers across America and became synonymous with rap music.
But there are exceptions. Big ones. Like rap artist Kendrick Lamar, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2018 for one of his albums. Or Hamilton, the stupendously successful musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda on one of the founding fathers of America, Alexander Hamilton, that is performed mainly in rap style.
There are several such great works in rap. One of them is the recently released album by a newly-formed trio called th1rt3en. The album, which came out on 22 January, is titled A Magnificent Day For An Exorcism. The band, th1rt3en, is a trio comprising Pharoahe Monch (vocals), Daru Jones (drums) and Marcus Machado (guitar).
Monch, 48, the frontman and main driver of the band, is known as a lyricist whose work is characterised not just by unusual rhyming techniques but its highly political, relevant themes. Much of A Magnificent Day for An Exorcism was composed during the pandemic-induced lockdown. And its release time, during US President Joe Biden’s inauguration week, was not a coincidence.
The album opener, Cult 45, is a scathing criticism of the Trump administration and a comment on the fact that even after he has been voted out, Trump continues to have a cult following that has divided America (T. Donald make Ronald Reagan turn in his grave/ Season discrimination, sprinkle a little sage/ Add a dash of hatred, eat it and get on stage/ Chase it down with some poverty, add a splash of the murder rate/ Regurgitate it and spit out rage).
Monch’s lyrics, uncharacteristic for much of the genre, are refreshingly bereft of egregious references to violence, drugs, sex, or discrimination against women. Instead, he chooses interesting perspectives to drive his point home. For NPR Music’s Tiny Desk concerts, which used to be performed live at the radio channel’s Washington, DC offices but are now performed by artists at home and featured online, Monch and his bandmates chose to record their video in a small padded cell. The five songs they performed included Cult 45 and The Magician, which is a disturbing track about school shootings, themed on a boy who was bullied so much by his peers that he chose to pick up a gun and go on a shooting spree at school.
Even when Monch is not rapping about political issues, his lyrics can be intense—even erudite. In Oxygen, a rare love song, he sings: My oxygen, aperitive or an opulent, indigenous occupant/ Angelic in your moccasins with the kinetic acumen to rid me of my toxins/ You could dictate a doctrine on a cathartic spit/ Fix your open-heart surgery for the broken hearted/ My high vibrational guidance system, hold. And then he chants from Buddhist scriptures.
Monch is an intellectual’s rapper. A rapper who pushes the listener into unconventional zones. In an early track titled When The Gun Draws (from a solo album, Desire, released in 2007), about gun violence in America, he raps from the point of view of the bullet. Scarecrow, from th1rt3en’s A Magnificent Day, is a track about racism but Monch’s lyrics are written from the point of view of a character in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, the Scarecrow, who lacked a brain and whose only desire was to get one.
Monch is an angry rapper, frustrated by the hypocrisy that prevails in America, particularly when it comes to racism. In an interview with NPR before his Tiny Desk video was released, he said: “Sure, we have always done socially and politically aware music, but I am tired of this ‘love will win’ nonsense. Love may be the most powerful vibrating force, but consciousness is spreading and it’s impossible not to be more aware of the evil that has kept the world in complete darkness.”
His trio’s new album is combative and full of rage, yet the anger is tempered by well-crafted lyrics and intelligent rhyming. It’s rap with a difference—a treat to listen to.
The Lounge list of 5 tracks to bookend your week
1. Cult 45 by th1rt3en from A Magnificent Day For An Exorcism
2. The Magician by th1rt3en from A Magnificent Day For An Exorcism
3. Oxygen by th1rt3een from A Magnificent Day For An Exorcism
4. When The Gun Draws by Pharoahe Monch from Desire
5. Simon Says by Pharoahe Monch from Internal Affairs
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.