From 2005, this is the debut full-length from vitriolic Seattle emcee Ricky Pharoe, also know as Art Vandelay, Greasy Earl, and more. Co-billed with beatmaker Budo, Pharoe raps articulately over the layers of samples and beats, wastes no time getting his point across.
Ricky evidently has a lot to get off his chest here, and he addresses each gripe head-on without fear of critique or retribution. The commercialization of hip-hop is addressed, as is the vapidity of American capitalism, in abundance. Mixed in thoroughly is a bold-faced pro-sobriety stance, a deep-seated hatred of club culture and the misogyny it feeds off of, and general disgust with the hoops one must jump through to traditionally be successful in the arts in this country. It’s rare that an emcee has the guts to preach his ideals when those ideals are so outside the norm – not only is he anti-club and anti-drug, but he openly mocks those who partake in those lifestyles, both of which play a big part in hip-hop culture.
Overshadowing the entire 53-minute rant that is Civilized is Pharoe’s frequent references to the Illuminati conspiracy, which plays a role in everything else he expounds upon, a force in control of the world’s governments just as much as it controls our thoughts and actions. I’ve never read Robert Anton Wilson, or Behold A Pale Horse, or any conspiracy theorists, so I can’t support or discount what he’s saying with any authority, and I’m guessing much of what Ricky’s preaching is lost on me. But obviously, he slung quite an undertaking over his shoulder with this record; a record that never quite has enough time or space to plumb the proper depths, but still manages to compel the listener.
I imagine he’s probably made himself a few enemies in the process of his career as an emcee; but as a cohesive, clever, and articulate statement, this album’s successes far outweigh its shortcomings. Pharoe is a white underground rapper with a dense, articulate flow and a penchant for self-exploratory poetry, so comparisons to Slug and Aesop Rock are unfortunately unavoidable. And yes, the comparison is somewhat warranted, as all three lyricists examine hip-hop from a personal perspective and capture images through the lens of an outsider.
However, Pharoe separates himself from the others with his subject matter and his unapologetic stance on the issues he tackles. He’s gutsy with his various interconnected foci; on the commercialization and dumbing down of hip-hop, which has been a subject of controversy in the past when coming from white mouthpieces in hip-hop. (Remember DJ Shadow’s “Why hip-hop Sucks In ’96”?) Ricky takes his critique several steps further, citing specific and often-reverent examples in popular hip-hop culture, mocking them to pieces, and beating them with a squeaky dog toy into submission. He manages not to sound like a prude with his anti-drug stance, due to his relating his own chilling drug-addled past. As much as he rails against the backward capitalist system this country employs, he readily admits taking advantage of it whenever he can. This gives him some credence; he can genuinely critique these things because he’s been there.
Although the mainstream is in the hot seat, Ricky’s underground compatriots also fall victim to his particular knife, as well as bonafide hip-hop legends. The most poignant example falls on the apocalyptic track “The Not So Great”, where Ricky both tells his own story as well as that of a man much like himself, aware of the sickness that infests his world. But this character chooses to ignore the honorable person within and gives in to temptation. Most effectively, and also most brazenly, he lifts the famous line from The Wu’s “Method Man” as his chorus (“I got myself a blunt, I got wide owl dub and I’m about to go get lifted. I’m about to go get lifted. I got myself a forty, I got myself a shorty and I’m about to go and stick it, yes I’m about to go and stick it”). The intent is blurred, with only the vehemence in Ricky’s voice to show that he’s passionate about what he speaks even when he borrows from another and the philosophy is on another planet, but tantalizingly within reach all the same.
Although masked in self-depreciation and humor, Civilized is an articulate work of anger and frustration. He’s targeting the world Pharoe has been placed in, and often specifically at his very audience – the drunk club-goers and stoners that are too busy listening to themselves bullshit to hear his music and his message of the peril surrounding us. I get the feeling this is music from an artist who’s driven to orate, and receives little, if any, satisfaction in the process.
Despite the laugh-out-loud moments on the record, I don’t hear Pharoe smiling during his delivery. Besides Budo on beats, Pharoe does it pretty much by himself here, with the exception of in-line contributions from PacNW heroes Billy the Fridge and Jewels Hunter. After this record, he put out a collaborative effort with the stylistic master Tru-ID, then released a couple of funny-as-fuck online EPs before resurfacing as Art Vandelay. His new album under that moniker, Face Tattoo, is dope. But this is where you should start. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)