Though Pharoahe Monch’s “PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” released in 2014, continues the story he began three years earlier with “W.A.R. (We Are Renegades)”, it stands on its own. By fictionalizing some elements of the physical and emotional toll he faced in his battles to remain an independent artist in the context of the challenges confronting many black men in America, Monch struck a universal tone. “PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” said life is never easy when you go up against entrenched systems.
Thus informed by the composer’s autobiography, Monche’s narrator was caught in a terrible torment, his mind a frantic, muddled mess. In the opening song, “Time2,” he rapped: “We fight demons from our past only to face new monsters.” Stuttering and shaking, the narrator went on to add: “Last year they hired me, this week they fired me/I have all these bills to pay.” His wife was pregnant and they were already planning to set up a college fund. Present and future in jeopardy, he stated, in an example of his rapid-fire rapping technique: “Panic, manic depressive mechanic that manages to frantically do damage to my brain.”
His story of his decline continued in the beefy, guitar-driven “Losing My Mind,” featuring the sweet voice of Denaun (who also works as Mr. Porter). He contemplated suicide and sought mental-health treatment. Prescription drugs left him feeling like he was about to “dissolve into the abyss with evolving.” Denaun sang the line that described the character’s self-perception: “A clock without a minute hand/An hourglass without sand.”
After releasing three albums as a member of the rap group Organized Konfusion, Monche issued his debut disc, “Internal Affairs,” in ’99, but a squabble over the use of a sample in one of its songs halted sales. His second solo recording, “The Desire,” featured contributions by Erykah Badu, Black Milk, Denaun and Dwele. “W.A.R. (We Are Renegades)” followed, and though it sold modestly, it was well received by critics in the hip-hop community, many of whom praised Monch for his staccato style of wordplay and complex interior rhymes.
In “PTSD,” the narrator shifted between bold, bravado-rich dreams and disorienting reality – it wasn’t always clear whether he reported what he fantasized or what he experienced. In “Rapid Eye Movement,” as the backing sounds swirled, he and Black Thought of the Roots tossed out dizzying, defiant verses: “So when the beat intensifies I become emotionally desensitized/Like once I slapped a rapper with mace/Then I spit acid in his face.” In “Bad MF,” Monche observed: “The best liar told a lie inside a roomful of liars/The lies was so exciting that all of the liars admired/When the truth walked in the building every liar retired.”
In the album’s most accessible track, “The Jungle,” Monche sought to communicate what life can be like in parts of Brooklyn, Cape Town, Chicago or Johannesburg – and he proposed a way out. As big beats, sizzling cymbals and repeating tones on guitar and keyboards informed a hypnotic underpinning, he rapped: “You need to take your monkey ass off to school and learn about Botswana, Sudan and Ghana, Mozambique and speak of pride and honor/…Utilize your mind to define dimensions.” In “D.R.E.A.M.,” the disc’s brightest cut, Talib Kweli used the Allman Brothers Band’s “Dreams” to tee up a song in which Monche gave a glimpse of hope that refused to die. But Monche’s album-long saga concluded without resolution for his narrator other than to suggest he was lost to a paranoid fantasy about future imprisonment for free thought.
Like its predecessor, “PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” was widely admired but didn’t sell well, perhaps due to its challenging narrative. Those who bypassed it missed a compelling, often incisive tale of a man trapped in a hell within and without whose momentarily glimmers of positive potential make his terror all the more frightening. Thus, “PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” is a contemporary horror story told in rhyme.