Once upon a time, I hated Company Flow. Their music sounded like rap as rigid noise-attack, all funless bellowing and construction-site clang. El-P’s solo yammer “Patriotism” was the one track I always skipped on the great Rawkus compilations Soundbombing II. Whenever his voice showed up on the underground rap albums I loved, like Atmosphere’s Lucy Ford on the Quannum Spectrum compilation, I’d get that forehead crease of immediate, physical annoyance. When Company Flow splintered and the Rawkus insurgence abruptly died, I liked a lot of the stuff on Def Jux, El’s new skronk-rap empire. I liked Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein and Aesop Rock’s Bazooka Tooth and Cage’s Hell’s Winter and (especially) Mr. Lif’s I Phantom. I liked the way these guys seemed to present a united front, their voices running interweaving commando maneuvers through El’s chaotic battlefield productions. I like how all the CDs had big, elaborately art-designed booklets. But I still wasn’t too sure about El himself. His productions started to get more layered and dynamic, but I still felt like they wanted to attack me, not move me. I remember going to see him live in maybe 2002 and immediately wanting my money back because the fucker would not rap on-beat. And I especially didn’t like the idea — one not really propagated by the label itself, but one which I saw everywhere anyway — that these guys were supposed to be a more vital antidote to mainstream rap — mainstream rap that was, at the time, fucking awesome. I had a hard time coming up with reasons to give a shit about C-Rayz Walz when there were new Petey Pablo or Beanie Sigel tracks exploding my face on the radio all the time. But then that particular war ended, and everyone lost. Def Jux went out of business, and Beanie and Petey are probably more underground than El-P at this point, through no decision of their own. And all of a sudden, I absolutely love everything El-P touches. Still trying to work out how that happened, but his new Cancer For Cure is an absolute dagger-throwing samurai warrior of an album.
Now, there’s definitely been a cultural shift. El has moved to the forefront of a hungry young New York underground scene, one that never gives off the monastic anti-pleasure vibe that I sometimes heard in Def Jux. Das Racist, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, Action Bronson, out-of-towners Danny Brown and Killer Mike — these guys collectively make up a tremendously exciting, frequently intersecting core of artists who marry that old Def Jux clusterbombs-exploding aesthetic with that old mainstream rap wilding-out-in-the-strip-club sensibility. And El-P is very much a part of that; he’s both a collaborator and an inspiration to these guys. But make no mistake: His musical approach hasn’t changed much. He still raps with a dogged scorched-earth intensity, firing off busy and cryptic broadsides every time he opens his mouth. His layered beats still sound like everything bad happening all at once, while allowing for occasional beams of beauty and melody to shine through the murk. His music still sounds like war, and it’s tough to explain what changed.
So maybe it’s just this: He’s better at doing El-P things than he’s ever been, and he also seems to be enjoying it more. That’s a good combination. Cancer For Cure is a dense and jagged album, but it’s also a fun one. When he’s not describing dystopic visions, he’s belting out the sort of threats that you don’t have to think too hard to understand: “Oi oi! I come to kick the shit out ya groin, boy!” His delivery sticks to the beat a whole lot more than it used to, and it sounds more effortless. The instrumental passages of his tracks just destroy: I love the way the trumpet squawks float over the live drum-thuds and the Billy Squier whoops on “Stay Down,” or the way the ominous John Carpenter synth-drones of eight-minute closer “$ Vic/FTL (Me And You)” stretch into infinity. There are moments early in the album where you could actually dance to it, if you were so inclined; I’ve successfully tested this hypothesis in my office a couple of times. I’m hoping he proves me wrong on this next time around, but Cancer For Cure just sounds like the best possible El-P album.
One thing El-P was always great at was putting together an album, making it all flow into something that worked like more than the sum of its parts, and Cancer For Cure coheres even better than anything he’s done before. Opener “Request Denied” is pretty much just hard, angry dance music; it reminds me of the late-’90s Prodigy or something, and not the Mobb Deep Prodigy either. The next few tracks are just pure ferocious bangers, with a bunch of El’s recent peers and collaborators showing up to do damage. I love Killer Mike on “Tougher Colder Killer,” but Danny Brown and Despot and Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire all come hard as hell as well. Those tracks adapt plenty of the ideas of primitive mid-’80s 808-based rap production, but not the simplicity; it cranks them up into a cyclone of sound instead. And then, after those ones end, we get the gradual cooling-out period getting into serious emotive, anguished material as the album ends, bringing more melody with it and occasionally giving El a chance to sing, and not terribly. All in all, it’s a very serious achievement.
Cancer For Cure comes just a week after R.A.P. Music, the almost-as-great album that El produced for Killer Mike. And together, those two albums put El in the running as rap’s man of the year. More importantly, they show a veteran artist who, against odds, keeps finding ways to expand and improve his signature sound, and discovering new things that he can do with it. He’s still El-P; he’s just a stronger El-P than we’ve ever heard before. Critics like me have long sniffed at so-called backpack rap for living in the past, for vainly fulminating about how rap should go back to some imagined past where nobody cared about money or fun. For a lot of people from that world, it’s a valid criticism. For El-P, it couldn’t be any further from the reality. This guy is on some serious shit right now.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Mount Eerie’s latest piece of expansive home-recorded desolation Clear Moon.
• Grass Widow’s fractured, skittery postpunk LP Internal Logic.
• Gossip’s glitzy-but-intense dance-rock record A Joyful Noise.
• Joey Ramone’s posthumous album …Ya Know?
• Dope Body’s discordant, deconstructed riff-rock bulldozer Natural History.
• Teen Daze’s buoyant dance album All Of Us, Together.