Stream: Organized Konfusion “Invetro”
It is 1997. Pharohe Monch and Prince Po are in their mid-twenties but they radiate a level of maturity and weariness one does not normally observe in people under fifty. They have encountered numerous difficulties —the death of their mentor Paul C, multiple label reassignments, critical adoration that never translates into gold sales— but unlike the majority of the rap artists that debuted around the same time,Â they have lingered long enough to release their third album.
Their works are lauded for being ahead of the curve at points, but each release also functions as a time capsule for their respective mini-epochs of rap. Their self-titled 1991 debut is an upbeat hodgepodge of whimsical concepts and fanciful fables; their 1994 sophomore effort mostly abandons their early formulas and sticks closely to a script of rugged realism; 1997’s The Equinox boasts a sparer sound that the duo uses to render an atmosphere of gloom, paranoia, and uncertainty.
Equinox does not cohere as well as their earlier works. Their attempt at telling a story through skits is a failure. Many of the beats are stripped down to the point that they sound incomplete, which is not the same as sounding raw. The music often fails to express the same level of urgency as the rapping. Monch and Po rock over beats that cannot support the weight of their technical virtuosity, let alone their conceptual depth. This unevenness is understandably jarring to some fans, but in retrospect it sort of makes sense.
Both urban America and the rap industry are in a strange place in 1997. Clinton-era prosperity empties the inner cities of remaining professionals, who migrate to the deceptively greener pastures of the inner-ring suburbs, their poorer relatives not far behind. Violent crime decreases, high-rises are demolished. The ‘hoods popularized by rap music change. Bored young men loiter, more concerned about paying child support than catching a drug charge. Their older siblings return from mandatory sentences without so much as a plan; ghettos look more like ghost towns than bustling drug marts.
The music is turning sparse and glossy enough for daytime airplay. The dominant themes revolve around notions of atomistic upward mobility. Issue-oriented outrage is almost non-existent. Political content is relegated to deep album cuts, b-sides, or just the underground in general, and most of it takes the form of esoteric conspiracy theorizing. The perpetuity of poverty and other ills amongst the poorest inner city residents lead many to wonder if moderate collective gains are all they are cracked up to be.
Po and Monch have questions that they feel are somehow connected to all of this. How will they temper the cerebral loftiness of their new album with verses that directly address the hardships of urban life? Can they convey the unsettling, tense mood of the times but raise their listeners out of the pervasive muck of mediocrity that they face daily? “InVetro” is the album’s philosophical center, as well as a satisfying detour from the plodding skit-based storyline. Within the song we hear the collision of the fear of extinction, the compulsion to persevere, and the resignation that comes with growing up too fast.
Monch descends on Buckwild’s piano-laced slow burner, reciting his lines with conviction and heart. He raps as an unborn child who is entirely aware of his lousy prospects. His mother abuses drugs, eats the wrong foods, and fills her mind with insipid entertainment. He describes “pissing in the abdomen” and having “thought of stabbing men,” suggesting that he is already living out the ghetto pathologies that will define him once born. Worse yet, he is faithless and nihilistic: “where the fuck do I go from here/ ’cause when the afterbirth disperse/ it’s hard to persevere.” He feels he is branded as a thieving “coon” and describes his upcoming birth as being “emitted” as if he is innately toxic.
Monch’s narrator would rather be aborted than face the scorn he sees coming, but his mother intends to keep him. We all know that an unborn child does not possess a conscious perspective, even a hopeless one, so it makes sense to read Monch’s narrator as a symbol for ghettoized youth. In the ghetto they become accustomed to a certain level of familial and social dysfunction. They are harmed by low expectations to the point that they stifle their own nascent dreams of success. “Birth” for them can only mean being moved directly into the prison system.
Po’s narrator is different. He is empowered by his imaginative faculties. The knowledge that he may not be born causes him to proudly claim his life as his own. He admits to confusion and even pessimism but his voice gets livelier as he describes his own ambitions. For him, birth means entering a world of opportunity that will make this dark period worthwhile. He views his trials and tribulations as preparation for legitimate success, even insisting that a reputation as “the city’s number one threat” could serve him well in a bid for mayor. He lusts after for material objects but also maintains a faith in a higher being as well as hope in redemption.
Po’s narrator is inspired by life’s challenges. He is determined to preserve his humanity on the eve of his annihilation. Monch’s narrator cannot even envision possessing the agency to reflect upon his situation, let alone devise a plan of escape. Both must contend with the temptations of illusory riches while figuring out how to fend for themselves, and both are lacking positive role models. Both are beset by recent mental and physical traumas and remain oblivious to the extent that historical processes have shaped their destinies. These are two consciousnesses that sometimes inhabit the same body, two states of mind that dwell in urban America waiting for a shock to the system, for something new to happen. — Thun