Versatile MC's Been Neglected Too Long

LP features bouncy basslines, anthemic choruses, densely layered lyrics.

For most of this decade, Pharoahe Monch has toiled as hip-hop's poster child for the underrated and overlooked.

As half of the duo Organized Konfusion, Monch has been the consummate MC's MC — a rapper who's turned his childhood asthma into a vocal inflection, packing densely layered lyrics into bursts of breath. Yet, despite his critical respect, Monch has rarely received commercial props — none of Organized Konfusion's three albums has ever gone gold (i.e. sold at least 500,000 copies).

Now on a solo rampage, Monch hooks up with NY underground giant Rawkus Records and rolls out a disc that strains to be a birth cry of an MC reborn. He hasn't switched up his style wholesale (the time-dishonored tradition of many rappers seeking glory and fame), but Internal Affairs might have been better named Internal Turmoil, as Monch simultaneously tries to exorcise the demons of previous disappointments without abandoning the path that's made him a legend among the legions of trainspotty, backpackin' hip-hop heads.

It should have been clear from his first single, "Simon Says"

(RealAudio

excerpt), that Monch isn't afraid to play the pop angle if necessary, though the song, with its simple, bouncy bassline and anthemic chorus, bangs much harder than your average Jay-Z hit. Likewise, Monch's pairing with Busta Rhymes on "The Next Shit" (RealAudio excerpt) has mo' bounce for the ounce, launching its spaghetti-western melody into uptempo convulsions.

Shades of his Organized past can be heard on the rich, jazz-inflected "Queens," a street tale written for Monch's home borough. Likewise, Monch still tries to carve out a moral center on "The Truth," bringing on board underground favorites Talib Kweli (Black Star) and Common for a pair of cameos.

If it isn't readily apparent, Monch branches out in different directions — perhaps too many. It's a testament to his versatility that he can hold his own next to tongue-twisting Busta Rhymes, the gun clap screams of M.O.P. ("No Mercy"), or femme fatale Apani ("The Ass"). At the same time, the album buckles unevenly under the weight of his ambitions, and it's hard to figure out what Monch wants to impart.

At his most provocative, Monch is brazenly controversial, as on the

misogynistically metaphoric "Rape," which compares dominating the mic to

dominating a woman (yes, it's problematic). Yet, he'll turn around and

pen the surprisingly sublime love song "The Light" (RealAudio

excerpt), which finds Monch singing the chorus with a jazz-guitar melody. Internal Affairs ultimately offers more questions than answers about where Monch wants to be, but you won't forget the trip he takes you on.