Pharaoh Height 230, the second release of the year for thirty-three year old Chicago wordsmith Lupe Fiasco, behind Tetsuo and Youth, is as well as a sequel and play off the words in the moniker from his 2006, the year his first album Food & Liquor rose to the scene with nowhere near as striking results, mixtape Fahrenheit 115. Fiasco’s latest is a six track, twenty-three minute marriage of sonic experimentation and his endlessly imaginative, and often off-key, rhymes. The artist’s creativity within the confines of such a tight space, as is the case with his latest Rap opus, astonishingly still gives off the impression of being more comprehensive and complete in the variety of themes explored and how they are developed than most full-length concept albums, and a viable presence throughout his work that cannot be contained simply to his eye-opening verses.
This can be seen in the sheer wit conveyed in the track listing alone. The aforementioned reads like a line of dense poetry or any one of Fiasco’s own lines, which can best be described as invariably random and abstractly knit journeys into his own thought processes, as it states when strung together: “In valleys of kings pyramid schemes”.
A first listen to Fiasco’s most modern piece, which was unexpectedly released on the night of August 28th of 2015 to the instant acclaim of fellow critics and audiences alike, suggested an artistic mess. Beside a sample of a woman repetitively saying “Pharaoh” that is sprinkled throughout, which was immediately so grating I was ready to pull my hair out after a minute or two of hearing it repeated in the background, I initially found Fiasco’s verses often-long winded unto the point of rambling. With great luck this faded as the duration of Pharaoh Height 230 progressed and what cried out to me with multiple returns to the aforementioned mixtape was that with his obvious admiration, and prime focus on the incredible rhythm and rhyme schemes gelling his stanzas together, Fiasco is the definition of an underground emcee, also refreshingly stated in the actuality that there are no additional features found herein, and it makes his music appear all the more heartfelt.
Unafraid to test himself and the boundaries of his genre, Fiasco often uses gentler melodies here just as often as the rawer, decisively more combative sound present in the amazing, six minute and twenty four second explosion of swift song and tonal pitches, which brings back the feel of Nas on 1994’s Illmatic to such a degree that the track itself is comparable to Nasir Jones’ “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” from the aforementioned LP, that is “Schemes”. Fiasco is wholly confident in presenting a three hundred and sixty degree portrait of himself and his mind-set, which is certainly something much of so called ‘rappers’ these days are lacking as they cling again and again to whatever current formula is selling records, and this is as evident in the more slave narrative oriented and gentler in tone opener, “In”, to the concluding opus that is “Schemes”.
Despite the steadily gaining momentum in the differing sounds and organization of these tracks, which gathers in obvious veracity and speed from song to song and is a phenomenal way to build-up a work (especially one with such a brief runtime as this) used throughout, the energy in Fiasco’s bars are equally vigorous. This is made remarkably clear in Pharaoh Height 230 in its first moment to its last. Such is the reason why after finishing my second sit down with Fiasco’s newest material my initial gripes may not have vanished entirely, but, strangely, the flaws became semi-endearing. Hence, they were easily forgivable given the endless layers of thought, depth and imagination coursing throughout, grabbing my attention and vowing for my contemplation, and I walked away with the swift awareness that despite its visible problems: Pharaoh Height 230 is a minor masterpiece.
Track two, “Valleys”, may be the most mainstream in sound and execution, with Fiasco’s occasionally off-putting and reminiscent of too many modern rappers voice weighing down the song to the least in terms of quality found herein. This is also where his bars seem the most inconsequential and tedious but, there is also something exhilarating about just letting go of these petty squabbles and becoming lost in the unpredictable and singular journey Fiasco is pulling you through in this mixtape as he jumps from one topic to the next, and the tracks within Pharaoh Height 230 bounce from one style and sound to the next many times (not just within the same song but often within the same rhyme), which adds to our collective admiration as the songs follow suit.
What is also astonishing is how Fiasco can dazzle as much in a track totals a little over a minute, as he does in the seventy- eight second “Of”, where he drops instantly the admiration stirring simile: “Behind the wheel like a vehicular killer”. To our wonderment this is just as effective as in his more protracted track list sharing works found within the proximity of this mixtape, as is the case with the near seven minute “Schemes”. This can be most readily accessed in the actuality that much of the mid-section, tracks three through five, run no longer than two minutes and fifty three seconds. With the holder of that crown being the rapid-fire bass grove that matches Fiasco’s similarly quick bursts of wordplay on the infectious song “Pyramid”, which is weakened by the horrendous singing he elucidates early on in the tune. Despite this, Fiasco’s hunger and desire to cut the fat and get immediately to hitting our ears with his signature lyrics is as visible on this song as it is in the equally stirring “Kings”, which presents an exemplary exhibition of how fast Fiasco can flow without losing the potency of what he is actually saying, and its sparse horn driven funk only adds to the endless instrumental creation exploding from track to track.
With lines like, “Knowledge is for power/ College is for cowards” there is also a definitive, and unmistakable, praise for linguistics running throughout much of the occasional bouts of sarcasm unveiled in Pharaoh Height 230. This gives his verbiage all the more credibility. It also provides more of an underlying sense that Fiasco is, like fellow Chicago native Common and Brooklyn legend Talib Kweli, as much a poet as an emcee. Furthermore, this makes the economy, the impressive variety of topics tackled and addressed within the mixtape and how beautifully done the production, lyrics and placement of the songs are to create a brief work which is a track to track continual story of sorts, a self-expressive cry through the medium of Hip Hop and a testament to Fiasco’s skillful instincts and willingness to challenge himself and come off largely successful.
Pharaoh Height 230 is such a multi-layered composition that it is invigorating to question, not only what other still indecipherable gems remain undiscovered with further listens, but what other wonders Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, also known as the charismatic and versatile Lupe Fiasco, has in store for us in the future.