Eye 8 The Crow, an album from emcee Ricky Pharoe and producer Mack Formway is, quite simply, it’s the best thing I’ve heard from either artist. Direct and straightforward, it doesn’t waste a single bar on filler, skits, or any of the needless stuff that so often clutters albums.
The album is thematic and sets a linear course, progressing from sober beginning to end. For those out there not familiar with the American colloquialism “to eat crow”, it means to admit wrongness, to swallow your words, and fess up to guilt. A more apt title would be hard to find, as the themes of guilt, transparency, and moral decay are prevalent. Pharoe has always had a penchant for being articulate, scathingly humorous, and unapologetic. Historically playing the roles of astounded commentator and bemused informer, his previous works found him relating the absurdities of a myriad of topics from religion, to capitalism, to commercialism, to pop art; and revealed him as an ever-growing and passionate orator. Whether his storytelling placed him on the stage or on a barstool, he was quick to jab his finger at everything and everyone that pissed him off. Like a cross between Don Quixote and The Underground Man, he tilted at windmills, gleefully calling out, in turn, each of the malodorous idiots surrounding him.
On Eye 8 the Crow, Pharoe has now turned inward, throwing all the passion he once held towards the outside world away and presenting himself in a new, darker light. His usual barbed humor has been blunted down to a bitter resignation, and his finger-pointing and scorn are reserved almost entirely for himself, revealing a morally ambiguous, menacing, and dead-eyed persona beyond the typical existential crisis. He depicts himself as an indifferent and exhausted man, sickened and numb past any fear of consequence for his actions. Pharoe has not turned thug; in fact, his level of eloquence and introspective depth has never been more poetic. For we are spying on him as he bares his soul and admits his atrocities in front of the mirror, spitting acid through a mask of grinning teeth. Nihilism is the philosophical doctrine that argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Moral nihilism argues that morality does not inherently exist and that moral values are abstractly contrived.
I say this because Ricky Pharoe and producer Mack Formway have created a nihilistic masterpiece with this album. It’s a distorted, bleak, and desolate journey, both philosophically and musically. Beneath the minor-key melodies and layers of beats, there is something dark, slithery, and mechanically single-minded. Televisions hiss white noise, samples are sliced to translucent thinness, mouths stutter, and repeat mindless noise. Over this, Pharoe relates his most naked confessions and base secrets in a steady, medicated drawl, constantly employing violent imagery, sounding both detached and savage. Thematically the album is connected: Personal achievement has been cashed in for the predetermination of fame and fortune; passion is discarded for materialism, and meaning and purpose are negated by the mere image of meaning and purpose.
This is a violent and traumatic transition, and bloody imagery is pervasive. He burns his bridges, annihilates his enemies, screws his friends, sells his soul, and focuses on his empty goals to the exclusion of all else, so very people he scorns idolize him, and he becomes king of the mindless system he despises. It’s a distilled and unrelenting listen, fatalistic and grim. “I ate the crow, and didn’t even choke” he snarls on the title track – he coldly and readily acknowledges this transformation and has no issue with it.
There’s a contrast and a duality with the characters he portrays, and Pharoe’s perspective constantly shifts between the accused and accuser. He rails against himself, angry when he screws up, just as he applauds himself for the same self-sabotage. Although obsessed with the image of fame and fortune, he cannot run from the crushing weariness of basic survival. When faced with the end of the world, he’s indifferent. He arrogantly calls himself the center of the universe, but immediately follows with a shoulder-shrugging “I guess it sounds fine.”
“When I look into the mirror, it’s only time I get starstruck,” he states on “So What” – his ennui is such that his existence is bleak, that life is tiresome, and that nothing external brings joy. He is ultimately weary on this cut, disillusioned and jaded.
Where Pharoe’s words provide the blueprint, beatmaker Mack Formway’s music provides the architecture. The music of Art Vandelay has always dramatic and heavy, with layers upon layers of samples, guitars, synths, and pounding percussion. The ingredients continue with Eye 8 the Crow, but as Pharoe’s mood has changed, so has the music. Minor keys and descending melodies dominate, and hip-hop structures give way to desolate, industrial clanging, digital distortion, empty creaking floorboards, and unresolved tension. Where Ricky speaks about the monster he has become, Formway animates the golem. Oddly enough he’s also responsible for the brief, few moments of brevity in the album, with refrains emerging through the dust and rubble to shed a little momentary, fleeting beauty to an otherwise desolate landscape.
The defining moment of the album is the oddly titled “Emilio Estevez”. Naked and brutal it is the nadir of the narrative. “Who needs a family / All I need is money / And a burner just in case you try to take it from me / I passed ugly now I’m moving on to retched / Don’t make your head and neck get somehow disconnected,” he bluntly states to a tv screen in the promo video for the track. “I promise I’ll deliver if it benefits me / Through long history, it seems to me the victories / Are written by the ones who use the strategy viciously / So let’s just do it surreptitiously.” Vowing to take a page from the great tyrants of the world, and to do for self at the expense of everything else, he asks himself, almost – but not quite – hopefully, “It’s that simple, right?”
The tone of the album subtly changes during the second half, gaining energy with guest appearances from 206 emcee Matic and the one and only Blueprint; culminating with the final tracks, “The Devil’s Notebook” and “Eyeballs”. These end pieces are concerned with the concept of freedom, although existence is still depicted as very much a meaningless construct. The nihilism is still very much present, but then anything less would only cheapen the dark perfection of the rest of the album. And I wouldn’t expect different from a band who got their name from a show about nothing. Pick it up, it’s my album of the year. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)