Tomorrow is the official release date for Army of the Pharaohs’ fourth album, In Death Reborn. They have been dominating the underground hip-hop scene for over a decade and seem to grow their fan base with every release. I first got into them in 2007 when a friend showed me their newest album at the time, Ritual of Battle, and I’ve been a fan ever since. While today they’re known as a large collective of about fifteen east-coast emcees, with slight changes to the roster made on each album, the idea of Army of the Pharaohs first started in 1998 with just five emcees.
The Five Perfect Exertions is a 1998 EP released by the original Army of the Pharaohs roster: rappers Vinnie Paz, Chief Kamachi, Esoteric, Virtuoso, Bahamadia, and producers 7L and Stoupe The Enemy of Mankind. While the EP contained dirty, clean and remixed versions of just two songs, both of those songs would be reworked and featured on the 2000 album Violent By Design, which is the second album by Vinnie Paz and Stoupe; together known as Jedi Mind Tricks. Army of the Pharaohs would then dismantle, some members rarely being heard from again, and others taking off with successful solo careers.
7L and Esoteric would go on to form a duo together and release multiple albums as 7LES, but it was Vinnie Paz and Stoupe’s duo as Jedi Mind Tricks that would blow up in the underground scene. New Jersey rapper Jus Allah made Jedi Mind Tricks a trio on their Violent By Design album, but he would leave the group as they went on to release two more albums without him before Army of the Pharaohs was resurrected with a new roster. Many of the new AOTP members would make guest appearances on 7LES and Jedi Mind Tricks’ early albums. After Jedi Mind Tricks and 7LES rode their success as separate acts throughout the early 2000’s, they would finally reunite as Army of the Pharaohs in 2006 for the release of their debut album, The Torture Papers.
The debut Army of the Pharaohs album featured ten emcees. Vinnie Paz, Esoteric and Chief Kamachi were reunited from the original EP; Esoteric brought members from his other group, The Demigodz, including Apathy and Celph Titled; Vinnie Paz also took the opportunity to bring some shine to his hometown Philadelphia, recruiting local rappers like Reef The Lost Cauze, Des Devious, King Syze, and the group Outerspace (which includes Crypt The Warchild and Planetary). The new group had a similar organized chaos to early Wu-Tang Clan albums. Each member had their own unique style to bring to the table, like Vinnie Paz with his aggressive delivery, Celph Titled with that sportscaster-like voice, Esoteric with his rapid-fire flows, and Apathy with that blunt, in-your-face wordplay. Each song was just filled with ill rhyme after ill rhyme. While this was the second album of theirs I listened to, I remember first hearing the song “Gorillas” in NBA Live 2007.
Just a year after releasing The Torture Papers, Army of the Pharaohs released their second album, Ritual of Battle. For this album, Apathy would temporarily leave the group to focus on his solo career, but there would also be additions to the roster. Jus Allah would reunite with Vinnie Paz on this album, and other Philadelphia rappers Demoz, Doap Nixon, and King Magnetic would also join the group. Even with the changes to the roster, they continued to do what they do best: spit hardcore, ill-rhyming rap verses over hard-hitting beats. Right from the first song I was drawn in, and I became ultimately convinced that underground hip-hop is greatly superior to mainstream pop-rap. The beats were darker and each member made sure to bring their A-game; my only complaint here was Apathy’s absence.
After Ritual of Battle, it would be a few years until the next Army of the Pharaohs album. Jedi Mind Tricks would continue to grow its brand after its highly successful 2006 album, Servants in Heaven, Kings in Hell, and would bring Jus Allah back into the group for their 2008 album, A History of Violence. Outerspace would also put out their own album in 2008 called God’s Fury, and 2009 would see the release of solo albums from Apathy and Esoteric. Esoteric worked without 7L to make the conceptual album Saving Seamus Ryan, and Apathy’s Wanna Snuggle? worked well to increase his own fan base.
The first quarter of 2010 would see the release of Army of the Pharaohs’ third album, The Unholy Terror. As far as roster changes go, Chief Kamachi would permanently leave the group for reasons I still don’t understand to this day, but Apathy would return. They also added rapper/singer Block McCloud to the group, who would bring some dope hooks as well as nice rap verses to the table. This album had a little more diverse sound compared to the older albums, as the production wasn’t all grimy all the time. It featured Celph Titled mocking autotune singers, Block McCloud ironically using autotune in his hooks without overdoing it, Vinnie Paz’s usual aggression, and all the epic rhymes and wordplay the rest of the group has been known to do. As expected, this was one of the best rap albums of 2010.
Army of the Pharaohs would spend the next few years dominating as solo artists and smaller groups. Before 2010 ended we would see Vinnie Paz release his first solo album without Stoupe’s production, 7L & Esoteric reunite for their 1212 album, and Celph Titled and Reef The Lost Cauze would collaborate with producers Buckwild and Guns-N-Butter respectively to release their own solo albums: Nineteen Ninety Now by Celph and Fight Music by Reef. Very much like the Wu-Tang Clan, there was never a shortage of music outside of their group albums.
Between 2011 and 2013 the crew put out nothing but fire to keep fans anticipating the next time they would reunite. This includes another Jedi Mind Tricks album, Vinnie Paz’s collaboration with Ill Bill called Heavy Metal Kings, another Vinnie Paz solo album, and solo albums from Apathy, Esoteric, and Reef The Lost Cauze. During this time between group albums I would get to see Vinnie Paz perform twice; once with Jedi Mind Tricks at the 2010 Rock The Bells Festival in New York and once with Ill Bill at The Opera House in Toronto in 2012.
Most recently, the AOTP members put out some more critically acclaimed albums in 2013. I mentioned in my Top 30 Countdown last year that Esoteric might have been the most dominant emcee of the year, as he was involved in three different projects. He teamed up with his usual producer 7L and Wu-Tang emcee Inspectah Deck to release the album Czarface last February, and by the end of the year released Machete Mode with producer Stu Bangas. Esoteric also teamed up with his old Demigodz crew to release their long-delayed debut album, KILLmatic. The Demigodz include AOTP members Esoteric, Apathy and Celph Titled, as well as Blacastan (who would join AOTP for this new album), Motive, and Ryu from Styles of Beyond. Between all these great albums and also getting to see Apathy and Celph Titled perform live in Toronto last year, I can say I felt nothing but excitement going into In Death Reborn. Let’s get into the album review!
Let’s start this off by quickly running through the roster changes on this album. As previously mentioned, Demigodz member Blacastan is a new addition on this album, as well as a rapper named Zilla, while Jedi Mind Tricks member Jus Allah is absent. Other than that, the core roster remains the same, as most of my favourite members are all over this album. In Death Reborn starts off with the previously leaked “Curse of the Pharaohs“, which does a good job in setting the mood. The Army is quick to remind us why we love them; right away they get into the hardcore battle raps they’ve become known for, filled with complex rhymes and wordplay along with clever punchlines. The album continues this way, with straight braggadocios hip-hop which this group does best.
One thing I noticed that’s different from their other albums is that there is a lot more focus on my favourite members of the group; with Vinnie Paz, Esoteric, Apathy and Celph Titled each appearing on at least nine out of the fourteen songs (Vinnie was on almost every song). Other core members like Planetary, Crypt The Warchild and Reef The Lost Cauze also get a decent amount of shine, but the obvious spotlight on the previously mentioned members is what might make this my favourite album of theirs since The Torture Papers. Surprisingly, longtime members like Des Devious, King Syze, Doap Nixon, Demoz and King Magnetic are each limited to only one verse on the entire album.
I think the core members of the group have only gotten better with time, as their rhymes remain sharp and their flows are delivered with the perfection that comes with experience. It’s a great thing to see them this focused on an album. As for the newer members, Zilla and Blacastan hold their own with their verses; Blacastan in particular stands out, as he appears on nearly every song in the second half of the album. Just like The Unholy Terror, Block McCloud has one sung chorus on the entire album, with there being a heavy focus on hip-hop throughout. As a whole, the old and new members of the group all mesh together seamlessly; they all keep each other on their toes with their competitive spirit, no one wanting to be the ‘weak link’ on any track.
Production-wise, Army of the Pharaohs mostly stay within their comfort zone, but also try some new things. One thing I haven’t heard on any of their other albums is the use of reggae samples for some of the hooks/bridges, but they’re quick to get back to the hip-hop (familiar 1980’s LL Cool J samples are what close out the album). While the production is solid, the highlight of these songs is definitely the rapping, as the main focus is on the complex lyricism. I still haven’t completely absorbed all the little references in their punchlines, and the lyrics are sure to keep listeners replaying these songs for a while. Overall, In Death Reborn serves as exactly what I wanted to hear from Army of the Pharaohs, and there is definitely more to come. Apathy is set to release another solo album in the summer, and there are rumours of another AOTP album coming before the year is over, most likely in the winter.
My Grades (based on how well I connected with them, no disrespect if your experience was different):
The Torture Papers (2006): A
Ritual of Battle (2007): A-
The Unholy Terror (2010): A-
In Death Reborn (2014): A
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