Hardcore material representative of Hip Hop made in the mid-to-late ‘90s has been taking a beating in some circles. Somewhat backhanded phrases like “Rappity-Rap” and “boom bap” epitomize aggressive, multisyllabic, Rap infused with similes and metaphors accented with sample-based production. Army of the Pharaohs rarely (if ever) give off the appearance of being threatened by this stigma, in part, because their individual and collective careers originated from that era. Some 16 years later, after multiple lineup changes and over a decade of watching Rap evolve (or devolve…depending on your perspective), AOTP splits their time between simultaneously preserving Hip Hop’s Golden Era and asserting their current relevance by competitively out-rhyming each other.
The open secret among fans of The Demigodz, Jedi Mind Tricks, Army of the Pharaohs and their collective peers is listeners can consistently expect a complimentary mix of abrasive rhymes and production. They more than deliver on that front. On “Visual Camouflage,” Juan Muteniac flips a guitar break and vocal sample from Adrian Younge’s “Turn Down The Sound,” adds in some additional electric guitars, and Apathy provides his usual, technically precise, violent, tongue-in-cheek bars.
“I will murk you, murder you / Turn you burgundy with the burner / Burst your bubble, snuff you, uppercut you like you had the nerve to / Touch a Kurdish virgin in a burka / Yelling Durka Durka,” the self-proclaimed “Honkey Kong” rhymes.
The collective references to lost civilizations such as Sumerians and Ancient Egypt are far from coincidental. While AOTP doesn’t date back to the Bronze Age, they do embrace elements of Hip Hop that have become less popular in recent years. There are hints of horrorcore, as Celph Titled plays dodgeball with severed heads on “God Particle,” and Vinnie Paz offers the sharp end of a jailhouse shiv and piss to his enemies on “Luxor Temple.” The one area where In Death Reborn arguably stumbles is when the focus shifts from internal competition and artistically raising the bar to extensive criticism about Rap’s current state and Golden Era romanticism.
“I don’t listen to the music that you herbs create / Soft mothafuckas sound like you rehearse with Drake / It’s wearin’ on me, I don’t know how much my nerves can take / I guess being a bitch requires certain tastes,” Vinnie rhymes on “Broken Safeties.” He’s not particularly wrong here. And the chances of an overlap between Drake fans and AOTP fans are slim to none. But conceptually the album’s material is much more enjoyable when the group focuses such energy on leading by example and venturing outside of their comfort zones. Between Vinnie Paz sparking the competitive cypher feel of “God Particle” and the darkly melodic “Azrael,” there are enough instances of experimentation and raw talent to push In Death Reborn into superior album territory. Casual fans and newcomers can make a valid claim the album is rather insular, but they’re most likely not the target demographic. As the title suggests, the Golden Era may be long gone, but creative types will always find ways to incorporate certain elements into today’s material to keep pushing the art form forward.