Playing cleverly off his most recent album, 2011’s W.A.R. (We Are Renegades), Pharoahe Monch’s PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a logically disillusioned treatise on our collective societal condition and his own state of mind – and to a lesser extent, the contemporary state of Hip-Hop. It’s the kind of thing that’s ripe for a conceptual thinker and narrative writer of Monch’s skill; yet the execution on PTSD never fully feels in step with the stature of the pursuit.
Not unlike a few of the late-period Roots albums – Black Thought himself pops up on the lyrical blitzkrieg “Rapid Eye Movement” – there’s a bubbling post-Bush frustration that permeates PTSD, but also a kind of Prufrockian melancholy:“I walk a thin line amongst the masses all alone / a furnished house with no one home,” goes the chorus to “Losing My Mind.” Taking up the line of subject matter suggested by its title, PTSD is ripe with war imagery (“An infant’s insides outside of his body / inside a place of worship…ungodly”) and examination of the fallout that comes with experiencing that level of trauma.
It’s in part a bridge for Monch to take up issues of mental health and addiction – along with their inherent stigmas – on a more personal level. It’s something he doesn’t shy away from, whether it’s painting the image of a revolver clutched perilously in hand on “Losing My Mind” or coming to grips with the realization that he might end up “with a nine losing my mind in Times Square.” Despite being no less serious, the overreaching extended metaphors on songs like “Damage” and “The Jungle” – not to mention the occasional railing against mainstream rap’s materialist streak – feel heavy-handed and frivolous by comparison. It’s indicative of an unevenness that envelopes PTSD, with the lyrical clunkers popping up with the same force as the more clever, poignant bars, and Monch as likely to fall in love with his offbeat flow as he is to discover new animated cadences.
The music on PTSD often reflects its content with a serious, foreboding sound, one punctuated by live instrumentation – horn blasts, dark pianos, psychedelic guitar – and influenced by Monch’s penchant for rock accents and energy. If the production occasionally limits itself to coloring with shades of grey, the album’s title track – a sunlight seeping through the blinds sort of moment that recalls The Foreign Exchange – suggests a musical range that isn’t completely realized.
On “Heroin Addict,” Monch repeats the woozy refrain: “We’re damaged!” PTSD is ultimately a flawed but worthwhile attempt at putting the pieces back together.