Happy 25th Anniversary to Organized Konfusion’s second studio album Stress: The Extinction Agenda, originally released August 16, 1994.
[Editor’s Note: Authorized audio & video from Stress: The Extinction Agenda are not currently available via streaming services, hence why embedded tracks & videos from the album are not included here.]
During a year that saw the arrival of debut albums by such soon-to-be legends as Nas and Biggie Smalls, it says something that the lyrical performances of the year could arguably be found on Stress: The Extinction Agenda, Organized Konfusion’s second studio album. In fact, if you asked me in 1994 who I thought was the best emcee in hip-hop, I probably would have responded that it was a tie between Troy “Pharoahe Monch” Jamerson and Lawrence “Prince Poetry” Baskerville. Both Queens-born emcees are forces of nature, who were hitting their stride as Organized Konfusion dropped their sophomore LP a quarter of a century ago.
Organized Konfusion had released their self-titled debut a little less than three years before, sneaking up on unsuspected hip-hop heads with their verbal barrages laid down over unruly tracks. Though they’d first become known for the goofy yet charming “Who Stole My Last Piece of Chicken?,” the album is best remembered for Monch and Prince Po’s formidable wizardry behind the microphone.
That being said, one of the talents that Organized Konfusion had as a group was its ability to shift topics and approaches, sounding just as adept rhyming about childhood reminiscing as they did rapping furiously about splitting the electrons off of an atom. It’s this talent that made them one of the greatest and most underappreciated groups of their era.
Stress has two distinct halves, or sides. The first is decidedly dark, fueled by abstract jazz fusion samples and dazzling displays of rapping dexterity. Much of the second half has a lighter feel, especially in the tone of the musical palette. The lyricism and experimental stylistic exercises are still present, but they’re subtler against an upbeat and uplifting soundscape.
Stress: The Extinction Agenda is best known for its first and only single, “Stress.” Diggin’ In the Crates crew member Buckwild produced the track, and it definitely caters to the abstract jazz/prog rock sensibilities. He makes use of an echoing bassline from Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s “Last Hope’s Gone” and the blaring horns of Charles Mingus’ “Mingus Fingus No. 2,” creating any atmosphere of claustrophobic bedlam. For the hook, the pair rhythmically chant, “CRUSH! KILL! DESTROY! STRESS!” a reinterpretation of a refrain taken from the poorly made-up “robot” Enoch in an episode of Lost In Space.
Both Po and Monch deal with the everyday stresses that they face in their lives, the cumulative effect of which threatens to pound them into submission. The pair start off strong, both delivering two of the better verses of their career. Prince Po asserts that “I insert my lifeline into the track, the energy / In me is a poison with no unrevealed remedy,” while Monch thunders, “Most of you can't even comprehend what I am saying to you / Even in my human form the message I’m relaying.”
“The Extinction Agenda” is in the mold of songs like “Releasing Hypnotical Gases” or “Casualties of War” from Organized Konfusion. Much like those songs on their debut release, the beat is a murky collection of barely controlled chaos, built from the muddy bassline and watery keys from Herbie Hancock’s “Rain Dance,” as well as chopped horn notes from Joe Farrell’s “Moon Beams.” Meanwhile, Monch and Prince Po zigzag across the track, at times seeming like they just might go off the rails, but still somehow keeping pace, building and bending syllables as they attempt to reinvent the fundamentals of language.
Throughout Organized’s history, it was Monch who received most of the laurels and was encouraged to go solo. However, Prince Po more than holds his own on songs like “Extinction Agenda.” “Poetical Poltergeist” Monch has the flashier verse, as he “heists tracks from the past / And return ’em to the present time in rhyme form” then literally plays verbal chess in an extremely impressive passage. However, Prince Po’s opening verse is one of the dopest on the album, kicking off the track by rapping, “Emerging up, to another level, there I stand / Hand to hand rap combat, Black / Back in the land I expand data for the wack / Leaving mutilated bodies, lacerated limbs, grim sites.”
But Monch does prove countless times throughout the album that he’s one of the illest of his era. He gives a three-verse virtuoso performance on “Thirteen,” his solo track on the album, again exhibiting his mastery of content and delivery. Each line is as solid as steel both on its own and linked together as one massive chain, as he raps, “Bust, everything I thrust is activated / Styles I file are not decaffeinated / I’m rough, tougher than Tonka / Why I even electrify the sky as if I was Blanka / Kids follow me and my Phillies like Willy Wonka / Silly, I assault and conquer, the cult and brainwash / And squash your little minds with rhymes.”
Though Monch obviously earns the majority of the spotlight on “Thirteen,” it’s worth noting that Prince Po contributes one of the all-time great hip-hop back-up vocal performances, providing some of the best rap ad-libs ever. Just hearing him shout at the end of the track, “Asshole! What am I?... AAAAAHHHHHH!!!!” is worth the price of admission.
“Bring It On” functions as verbal calisthenics for both Monch and Prince Po, as the pair succeed in being as creative as possible when it comes to delivering innovative rhyme styles. Both run roughshod over the Buckwild produced track, not just kicking potent battle rhymes, but speeding up and slowing down, stuttering, overly enunciating each singular syllable, and coming close to singing. It’s another staggering exercise in near sensory overload.
Stress isn’t all mind-bending lyrical explosions. In fact, the reflective content featured on the album is often just as strong. “Black Sunday” is a somber look at the origins of both members of the duo, as they strive to become successful over a loop of Eugene McDaniels’ “Jagger’s Dagger.” Both members perfectly modulate their voices and delivery to convey the passion for rhyming they developed while living within meager, check-to-check means. “We came a long way and I’m still running for my freedom,” Prince Po raps. “Still have one hundred miles to go, escape from / The Crack vials, so, you can feed that baby / I used to ride the elevator with the crazy lady.” Though the song often feels bleak, there’s an underlying sense of hope as they seek an opportunity to get their music heard, even after their mentor Paul C passed. The song ends in their triumph, but still feels reserved.
The shift to more personal content extends into the album’s second half. However, “Why” marks the album’s tonal shift. Buckwild crafts the keyboard break from Julie Driscoll’s version of “Light My Fire” into something lighter and jazzier. Beginning here, Monch and Prince Po topically move away from the more complicated fare towards more “grounded” subject matter.
The stylistic presentation was still amongst the most complex ever recorded, as Monch and Prince Po excoriate cheating and shifty females using varied and unconventional rhyme cadences on “Why.” But overall, the second half of the album focuses on being uplifting. Prince Po carries most of the weight on “Let’s Organize,” a horn-heavy, upbeat track, where he raps, “For those who slept, wake up, ya better make space / Taste the bread I break off as I take it to your face!” Besides a short verse from Monch, the song also features a similarly abbreviated verse from affiliate and super-dope emcee O.C., as well as fellow Queens’ denizen and longtime friend Q-Tip.
Stress does return to more somber fare towards the end of the album, highlighted by one of the most inventive hip-hop tracks ever recorded. On “Stray Bullet,” the duo rhyme from the perspective of, yes, a bullet, fired without remorse or any regard for life or the safety of innocent bystanders. For his arresting first verse, Monch would be awarded “Rhyme of the Month” in The Source for rhymes like, “Clip to release projectiles in single / File forcing me to ignite then travel / Through the barrel, headed for the light / At the end of a tunnel, with no specific target in sight.” He then slows the rapid action down to a crawl, describing his trajectory across a crowded playground near a project in Queens, wantonly destroying the lives of everyone and everything it comes into contact with. The beat, constructed from a loop of Donald Byrd’s “Wind Parade” and muted sounds from Biz Markie’s “Something For the Radio,” perfectly fits the grim subject matter.
Stress ends with “Maintain,” which is a perfect bookend considering the album opened with “Stress.” With this song, an early production by Rockwilder, the pair encourage hope in the face of adversity. According to a 2DopeBoyz interview with Prince Po, the song was influenced by the death of Monch’s father, who had always supported the two in their endeavors. As they coped with his passing, they wanted to make a song that resonated with others going through dire circumstances. “We wanted to make a song that gave people inspiration and a promise for tomorrow,” Prince Po said, “to let them know we’re going through things too.”
Stress is the strongest of Organized Konfusion’s three studio albums and one of the best albums of 1994. The fact that it was recorded and released during a time when lyricism itself could be a potent selling point is both encouraging and a little sad, considering that an album like Stress probably would never have received major label distribution 25 years later. The duo would go on to release The Equinox (1997) a few years later, and then both would cultivate their own distinctive solo careers. And both emcees, particularly Monch, would become recognized for their ample verbal abilities. But to listen to Stress: the Extinction Agenda is to hear two of the best at their peak working in seamless tandem, and that’s a pretty special experience.