New York hip-hop veteran El-P makes listeners work for the many rewards found on his consistently outstanding solo albums. It’s the best kind of work, though. El’s third full-length, Cancer 4 Cure, is massive in scope like a Salman Rushdie novel, inaccessible upon first exposure but offering unending rewards when re-visited multiple times. The labor required to appreciate the record seems a fair trade, what with El-P’s like-clockwork album-every-five-year cycle. The man’s creative battery — which features a capacity greater than pretty much anyone else’s in hip-hop — may recharge at a slower rate than most, but the duration of artistic returns after he unplugs it is endless.
Idiosyncratic and left-of-center from the start as one-third of ‘90s alternative rap torchbearers Company Flow, the MC/producer originally known as El-Producto was borne as an underground rap savior with his first solo outing, 2002’s subterranean colossus Fantastic Damage. The rise of his seminal Definitive Jux record label cast him in holy concrete in the eyes of the nerd rap kingdom. Producto’s product became the indispensable antidote for curing all of hip-hop’s commercial wrongs. His sophomore full-length, the paranoid and status quo-rejecting I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2007), helped to reassert the rebellion and independence so fundamental to the spirit of the genre. More importantly, though, it gave the art form a prodigious shove forward with outsized bombastic production that sounded like the crest of a sonic tidal wave originally stirred up by The Bomb Squad 20 years prior.
With I’ll Sleep, finally stubborn New York City rap revivalists could feel comfortable shedding their mid-90s armor and poke ears and heads back into the hip-hop atmosphere knowing a trusted craftsman was forging new gilded rap cenotaphs from pure source material rather than coating flimsy aluminum skeletons with synthetic sheen. Over a now 10 year span, El-P has become one of hip-hop’s most virtuosic officers, one of the few remaining artists who doesn’t totally need the internet’s self-aggrandizing methods of building anticipation for his projects. That’s due in-part to a fiercely loyal fan base, one built-in since 1993 and ready to ride on blog comment sections every time he unveils a new rap edifice.
Indeed, with each subsequent release, El-P has proven himself to be the Frank Gehry of hip-hop production. That might be a lazy analogy but I don’t think there’s a more appropriate one. From a distance, El’s beats are free-form architectural in design, seemingly battered into shape with a ball-peen hammer and awl. But spend time inside each one and a measured precision and nuance is revealed. These are intentionally crafted spaces unlike any other in rap.
El-P loves to celebrate the old while exploring the new. On Cancer 4 Cure, Rick Rubin’s rock sensibilities and other throwback hip-hop flourishes are engineered alongside massive percussion and towering walls of electronic sound. There’s the rocking cowbell conspicuously placed underneath descending retro-futuristic synth on “Oh Hail No.” Old-school record cuts are inserted as abrupt rhythmic elements while a doomsday robot foresees impending calamity on “Tougher Colder Killer.” The album’s sonic benchmark, however, might be “Drones Over BKLN” which is all frenetic, paranoid chase music capped at the end with El-P’s own altered take on a hip-hop standard: the resounding kick-drum/high-hat combination from Schoolly D’s “PSK What Does It Mean?” El-P embeds these classic relics from hip-hop’s past in the foundation of his new, cutting edge beats thereby creating something simultaneously visionary and timeless.
El’s unique range of view has never been limited strictly to his compositions, either. In my pre-album review Google endeavors I came across a track-by-track analysis written by the artist himself for UK outlet, The Skinny. The discovery was hugely unfortunate because to sort through El-P’s lyrical content without the help of its author is to independently discover a dense mix of abstract poetics and turns-of-phrase that veil intense personal narratives and deft social commentary. There’s much potential for interpretive hand-wringing here, an extension beyond hip-hop’s normal range of face value lyricism well into lecture hall expository exercise.
The gloomy nature of El’s lyrics is the first thing to note. The anti-war statement “Tougher Colder Killer” (featuring Killer Mike and Despot) assigns a burden of guilt not only to the track’s fictional soldier character but to America in general. Each rapper channels his figurative kill-at-all-costs MC energy into visceral descriptions of killing on the battlefield, ones with obvious real world implications: “To the mother of my enemy, I just killed your son / He died with his face to the sky and it cannot be undone / He didn’t die hard, in the end he just grinned and bowed / Made him dig his own grave at the point of a gun while he laughed to the gods out loud,” El-P raps with furor and a palpable karmic fear. He’s often concerned with the emotional fallout from human pathologies on both micro and macroscopic levels. The traumatic intimacy of hearing domestic abuse occurring mere inches above your head (“For My Upstairs Neighbor [Mums The Word]”) to the psychological repercussions of losing a loved one too soon (“$4 Vic”) are turned into affective lyrical deliberations, heavy with imagery and nostalgic laments.
When El is in the mood to participate in rap’s ancient rites of blind hubris, his shit talk is similarly elevated. “The Full Retard” was the first leak from Cancer, his self-described “I’m coming out swinging” joint: “I am Sam, I am known to go ham, the full retard / Playing taps on a keytar, in the Benz or the Beamer / Either ether-licious or rebel yelling the theme of / Son of forgotten freedom, rebel ariba riba.” The posthumous voice of friend and fellow Def Jux artist Camu Tao is sampled for the hook; his refrain “So you should pump this shit like they do in the future” declares the past and inevitable future relevance of his musical partner. It’s on “Retard” and posse cut “Oh Hail No” (featuring Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire and Danny Brown) where levity is spared for the sake of fuck-all madcap exultant praise.
Ultimately, Cancer 4 Cure comes up short only within the context of El-P’s own musical storehouse. It’s neither the best solo work he’s done (I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead remains the magnum opus), nor is it his best full-length production effort (see Cannibal Ox’s 2001 canonical Def Jux entry, The Cold Vein). Hell, it might not even be his most well-received production project of this year, as there’s more wide-ranging appeal on Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music which was released a mere seven days ago. Still, Cancer 4 Cure takes big genre-bending risks and makes successful, deft maneuvers that would be impossible outside of El-P’s own self-contained universe. This is, yet again, a mode of hip-hop that exists above anything else in its respective genre, all due to a true intuitive to which the normal laws of rap physics don’t apply.