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  • Writer's pictureEvan

Album Review: Stress: The Extinction Agenda

There’s a case to be made that 1994 is the strongest year in hip hop history. Not only did Nas drop the monumental Illmatic, but Biggie Smalls made his debut with Ready to Die, Redman came out with the twisted Dare Iz a Darkside, and OutKast proved themselves some of the most promising rappers in the South with Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. But deep in the underground, far outside the eye of the mainstream, Organized Konfusion released what I would consider a contender for the best rap album ever made. On 16th August 1994, the Queens duo gifted us with Stress: The Extinction Agenda.

Within a few seconds of the intro, the foreboding atmosphere of Stress is well-established. A faint, meandering bassline beckons the listener into the album, followed by a flurry of panicked voices which combine into a harmony of pure anxiety. Then, through the mist of voices comes Pharaohe Monch, whose high-pitched, wailing delivery pierces through the bassline. His presence on the microphone is like no other – he slows down, speeds up, shouts, whispers, laughs, and cries, all in the same verse. Only Prince Po is unhinged enough to match him, the manic second half of Organized Konfusion whose guttural tone works in perfect contrast against the high screams of Monch. The intro to Stress may be brief, but in those two minutes, the rappers sum up all the insanity the listener has to look forward to.

Momentum picks up on the explosive ‘Stress’, a rhyming masterclass where Monch and Po list off all the problems that plague their daily lives. A brutal snare snaps every few seconds in the instrumental, matching the roaring presence of the MCs. On the hook they shout “Crush, kill, destroy, stress!” but the screaming horns and thundering bass create a bleak atmosphere, as if any attempt to destroy stress is worthless. Another pulsing bassline sizzles underneath their voices, borrowing the dark tone of the intro until ‘The Extinction Agenda’ offers a moment of vibrance. Rapping over a glittering sample from Herbie Hancock’s Sextant, the track is a hypnotic spectacle in jazz rap where both MCs offer some of the most intricately-written and animated verses of their careers. Monch steals the show on the back end, delivering my favourite verse in rap history: “I’m the poetical poltergeist, I heist tracks from the past / And return ‘em to the present time in rhyme form.”

After an impactful first leg, Stress continues with the phenomenal ‘Thirteen’. With some swift record scratching, finely-chopped samples, haunting backing vocals, and another demanding bassline, the busy array of sounds come together into a claustrophobic soundscape intent on stressing out the listener. Meanwhile, Pharaohe Monch handles the beat solo, showing off his uncanny ability to match the wildness of his delivery to the sharpness of his lyrics. By comparison, ‘Black Sunday’ is tame, with a gentle, soulful instrumental giving the rappers a moment to breathe. Po and Monch reflect on their rise in the rap scene, taking the opportunity to flex some of their slowest and slickest flows.

‘Drop Bombs’ is perhaps the most abrasive song on the record. Running for just over a minute and a half, the duo make a fierce impact in that time, chanting the interlude with more passion and fury than the group vocals on A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Scenario’. That explosive sound carries over to ‘Bring It On’, a sinister highlight where the duo join together to scream “Bring it on, motherfucker, bring it on!” for the hook. Both rappers deliver some of their smoothest flows, bending their voices this way and that to master the instrumental and turn their swirling lyrics into a form of hypnotism.

On ‘Why’, Monch and Po exchange their stress for despair, rapping about their heartache after being exploited and betrayed by their partners. A melancholic horn sample adds to the downtrodden atmosphere, in stark contrast against the lively bassline which gives the track more of a groove than any before it. After this dark low point, things get more colourful than ever as Stress enters its final stretch.

With a feature from Q-Tip, it’s no surprise that ‘Let’s Organize’ is the most upbeat song on the album. Although Tip only helps out on the hook, his playful energy is infectious, lifting the track to new heights as he hypes up the MCs. Monch and Po are as predictably excellent, but a surprise verse from O.C. makes the song even better, with the four rappers bouncing off one another effortlessly. Backed by a glamorous fusion of horns and bass, the production elevates ‘Let’s Organize’ to one of the greatest jazz rap songs ever made.

‘3-2-1’ may be the only song where Monch and Po sound genuinely happy, using the cut as an excuse to brag about their skills and back it up with some of the slickest flows of ’94. The bubbling bassline gives the song an insatiable rhythm, encouraging every listener to bob their head as the duo prove themselves, yet again, to be some of the most technically skilled rappers in rap history. On ‘Keep It Koming’, the rappers do exactly as the title suggest, keeping up the energy of the past few tracks over a meandering sax sample and some clattering percussion.

As if Stress could not get any more impressive, the duo prove their worth as storytellers on the incredible ‘Stray Bullet’. Rapping from the perspective of a bullet fired from a gun, the rappers narrate all the death and terror caused by the weapon as it ricochets from victim to victim: “Through the barrel, headed for the light / At the end of a tunnel with no specific target in sight.”

The album closes with ‘Maintain’, a perfectly moody outro where the rappers – sounding more despairing than ever – chant about how they must persevere. Through all the troubles listed across the album – toxic relationships, violence, corrupt labels, and family tragedies – each one gives them stress, but they must maintain. Whether a positive or negative note to end on, the harrowing instrumental makes it difficult to tell. A bonus track follows after – a light-hearted remix of ‘Stress’ with brand new verses and some upbeat production from Large Professor. Despite covering the same despairing topics, the groovier sound gives the remix a hopeful edge, as if the chant of “Crush, kill, destroy, stress!” is not a vain attempt to alleviate them of worry, but a promise they will overcome it.

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