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Pharoahe Monch sits at the head of a long, wood-grain table in a hotel lounge in Long Island City, musing on death, emotional trauma, and Dr. Oz. The rapper, who grew up in South Jamaica, Queens, is explaining the concept of his new album, P.T.S.D. (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), by way of something he heard the TV quack pontificating about. "Dr. Oz said he's only just coming to grips with the voices in his head," says Monch in a studied patter. "Not voices in a mysterious way, but the ones asking why you haven't succeeded enough, or why you didn't go further in education, or why you're not married by now." Clad in a black leather jacket, Monch slumps back in the plush chair, takes a puff of his red asthma inhaler, and says, "Dr. Oz only just realized it's not taboo to deal with those voices that cause you anxiety or depression. That's the release of pressure my album addresses." Consider Monch the world's new rap therapist.
P.T.S.D. marks Monch's fourth solo studio project. The rapper first received acclaim as one half of Organized Konfusion, a group he formed with Prince Po, whose three '90s albums were hailed as classics that never yielded commercial hits. Since Monch went solo with 1999's Internal Affairs, his main dalliance with the mainstream was "Simon Says," a monstrous anthem on the Rawkus label that took the revered underground wordsmith viral, not least when Hot 97 radio record-breaker Funkmaster Flex spun the song almost continuously during one show. Then industry disaster struck, as Monch discovered his label hadn't cleared a sample from the Godzilla soundtrack. At one point, the lyrics to "Simon Says" quip that its protagonist accumulated "underground loot without the gold." It proved to be a prescient crack when the record was pulled from retail.
When Monch talks about the inspiration behind writing P.T.S.D., it's natural to assume "Simon Says" instigated his own post-traumatic rap industry stress disorder. But he's using a broader palette: "When you talk about the umbrella of anxiety, depression, and suicide, those things transpire for so many artists. If you look at not just hip-hop artists, but Kurt Cobain and rock and soul, you see these signs and you wonder what's going on."
While researching afflictions addressed on P.T.S.D., Monch found himself drawing from observations of his own life. He notes that post-traumatic stress disorder not only affects war veterans but also "the kids in Queens and Brooklyn and Chicago who go to school and have to worry about gangs as well as the police and the environment, and the stress, tension, and violence that comes with that."
Monch overcame his own wariness with the issue after the release of his previous album, 2011's W.A.R. (We Are Renegades). Diagnosed with chronic asthma as a child, Monch was rushed to hospital after suffering a severe asthma attack just after the album's release. He was hospitalized for two weeks and hooked up to an intravenous concoction of steroids and antibiotics. During the recovery process, Monch stopped sleeping, and the feeling that he was being overwhelmed by the minutia of daily life threw him into a downward spiral. "I had bad headaches and felt an almost physical weight on me," he recounts, gesturing to his shoulders for emphasis.
A revelation came in the unlikely form of an appointment with the dentist. After filling out his paperwork, the surgeon called Monch into his office and explained the main side effect of his hospital-prescribed medication was depression. "When I heard that, I fell out on the table and started crying," he recalls. "It was my answer to what the fuck was going on. I know what the physical weight of depression is like, and it was literally leaping off my back. I wanted the album to feel like that."
P.T.S.D. plays out true to Monch's intention. It opens with a brilliantly brooding series of songs that pair cavernous and shadowy production with lyrics that deal with mental struggles and societal tumult. Often this happens in grisly detail, as on "Losing My Mind" he raps, "Viewed an infant's insides outside of its body/ Inside of a place to worship, ungodly." On it, you can hear the stress in Monch's voice.
As the 16-song album unfurls, though, salvation takes over. It's signaled by "Broken Again," which features Monch singing in a fashion he likens to "a Tears for Fears or Depeche Mode style." Emotional acceptance occurs by the time the track is over, and the P.T.S.D. experience becomes bathed in light with the jaunty "D.R.E.A.M.," recorded with Talib Kweli. At that point, you realize Monch has crafted the musical equivalent of a great stress being lifted off the listener's shoulders. He might want to send a copy Dr. Oz's way.
P.T.S.D. is out now on WAR Media