El-P’s at a point in his career where very few people could fault him for half-assing, if only because there’s nothing really left for him to prove. Hell, you could probably single out any of his accomplishments over the past fifteen or so years (Fantastic Damage, Weathermen, Def Jux, Company Flow, The Cold Vein, etc. etc.) and use that to justify any lackadaisical bullshit released since then. Artists have stopped giving a fuck for accomplishing much less.
The Stone Roses: Ah, fuck it. We made The Stone Roses. Here’s an album that sounds just like it except shittier.
Allen Ginsberg: Ah, fuck it. I wrote Howl. Here are a bunch of poems that sound just like it except shittier.
Michael Haneke: Ah, fuck it. I made Funny Games. Here’s the exact same movie with a more expensive cast. And shit.
And yet here we are, not even halfway into 2012, and El has already dropped two brilliant full-length albums within a week of each other (for more on the excellent Killer Mike collaboration, R.A.P. Music, see Drew’s take). Cancer 4 Cure is his first solo release since 2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead: an album I consider not just El’s finest work, but the finest that Def Jux released period (yes, more than The Cold Vein, Labor Days, Deadringer or whatever the fuck else you want to hoist up there). Sleep represented something of a departure for El-P. The beats were denser and more accessible, at least compared to the twenty megaton boom bap of Fantastic Damage and Funcrusher Plus. There was a lot of live instrumentation, contributed by an eccentric cast of guest musicians: James McNew, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, Ikey Owens, Daryl Palumbo, Matt Sweeney etc. etc. In addition to the usual sci-fi braggadocios, El’s lyrics experimented with storytelling on tracks like “Tasmanian Pain Coaster,” “Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)” and “Flyentology.”
I think the biggest change of all though was its sense of focus. Fantastic Damage was a stream-of-conscious fuck you to everyone and everything. It didn’t really have a point—outside of “fuck you,” I guess. In contrast, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was about trying to maintain a basic sense of empathy and compassion in a world where humanity’s sloth, greed and complacency had reached a boiling point. El has never really struck me as a political rapper, at least compared to guys like Sage Francis, P.O.S. and Brother Ali who consciously try to facilitate change through their music. El usually portrays himself as an angrier and more unhinged version of Winston Smith from 1984, or what’s his name from Brazil: one man railing against a system that’s irreparably fucked. That said, Sleep had a certain “I’m not settling for this fucking bullshit” resolve to it that wasn’t really noticeable on his past work. It didn’t offer anything in the way of solutions, and it didn’t tell you that everything was going to be okay, but that was never the point: it was fight music for the coming shitstorm.
And now that five years have passed and the shitstorm cometh, El has been gracious enough to give us another album. El has said that C4C is about humanity’s inherent self-destructiveness and how it’s manifested in today’s geopolitical freakshow. And I have to say, for an album that revolves around the self-inflicted tragedy of the human condition—this shit fucking bumps. C4C takes several of the ideas introduced on Sleep and pushes them to the next level. “Request Denied” blends these pulsating hip-hop rhythms with big beat synthesizers that make it sound like a laser-guided missile strike wired by the Chemical Brothers. “Drones Over BKLYN” mixes futuristic synths, old school drum machines and saloon pianos, and is probably the best thing El’s put together since “Run the Numbers” off Sleep. “Tougher Colder Killer” sounds like BDP’s “South Bronx” running through a Trent Reznor sawmill—“The Full Retard” like a sonic bomb ripping through a Martian penthouse. El and his merry band of collaborators (Little Shalimar, James McNew, Ikey Owens, Wilder Zoby, Matt Sweeney) have really outdone themselves this time. You could strip C4C down to its instrumentals, and it would still be an Album of the Year contender.
I think what really impressed me though were the lyrics. El’s always been a good MC, but this time around he’s striving to be a great one. He places a greater emphasis on raw lyrical technique than at any point in his career since—shit, Company Flow at the very least. His flow is sort of like the puzzle box from Hellraiser: complex, precise and filled with the bacchanal delights of everlasting suffering! Or something. The storytelling that he experimented with on Sleep also makes a return, and throughout the course of the album, El assumes the role of inquisitor, rogue assassin, revolutionary, hapless bloke on the street, inquisitor again and so forth. He keeps guest appearances to a minimum, though the few that show up (Killer Mike, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, Despot) more than hold their own; hell, Danny Brown practically hijacks the fucking record on “Oh Hail No” (I’ll never look at Ric Flair the same way again).
In short: you need to hear this fucking record. Outside of a minimally-distributed folk-punk album that you probably haven’t heard of, it’s the best thing I’ve heard all year. Hip-hop is alive and well and living in a nuclear silo beneath Paris.
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