El-P - Cancer For Cure

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.

Cancer For Cure is out now on Fat Possum. Stream it here.

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.

Comments (27)
  1. 1) El-P already had the top verse of 2011 (“The Last Huzzah” was IMO the best rap track of last year and El-P just absolutely killed his verse on that.). He’s on a serious hot streak.
    2) I got a chance to talk about El-P’s production in a final paper I wrote this semester for my “Literature and Psychoanalysis” class! I was writing about the workings of mourning and melancholia in Cannibal Ox’s “Iron Galaxy” (liberal arts education ftw)
    3) The Cold Vein is the best rap album ever and I feel like you’re being kind of dismissive of that whole aesthetic. While I can see why you resent the fact that Def Jux-esque backpap rap was presented as a “good” alternative to more hedonistic mainstream stuff, I think, for one thing, that backrap wasn’t as much of a joyless attack as you make it out to be, and also, a lot of people (myself included) would much rather be listening to artfully joyless hip-hop than some radio song by Petey Pablo about lifting your shirt over your head and spinning it like a helicopter (though that song is, I guess, still sort of a guilty pleasure for me.)

    • Though I appreciated and enjoyed your comment (and wrote my American Studies Masters thesis on dub reggae), I think the author was expressing a preference, not dismissing an aesthetic. In any case, I have felt much the same way and I’m convinced I need to turn around on that before it’s too late.

    • Man, if you think I’m dismissive of that stuff NOW, you should’ve talked to me 10 years ago. Also, “Raise Up” is the motherfucking jam, but if we’re really going to go in deep on Petey Pablo, please investigate “Get On Dis Motorcycle”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jrtNOfx8Fl4

      • I’m not sure, but I always felt like Def Jux was supposed to be a vital antidote to the rest of underground rap and the whole obsession with the past and old-school shit.

        • That’s a really good point. Def Jux stuff doesn’t sound much like Golden Age hip-hop at all. If anything, I’d put it more in league with the Dr. Octagon-esque craziness that really helped expand the genre (at least in the underground).

  2. I dont understand your points at all, I always liked Company Flow & El-P’s abstract, off the wall song structure & sound, I dont get what was “Joyless” about it at all, joyless to me is the stuff they play on the radio that all sounds the same, thats the stuff that gives me a headache “Oh great, another rapper who can barely speak rhyming poorly about how much money he has” *Pops Advil*

    But to each his own, I’ve always noticed EL-P’s work splits people down the middle, you either love it or hate it, kind like Trent Reznor in the Rock world, everybody who didnt think he was a genius thought he was the worst thing that ever happened to music, there was no middle ground.I think dude prefers it that way honestly

  3. I love this album, definitely Hip-Hop album of the year so far and possibly album of the year so far full stop. I do still slightly prefer Fantastic Damage though, it just seems to have a special quality that can’t be replicated.

  4. sounds great

  5. I’m sort of shocked to see El-P, and the NY underground scene in general, getting so much positive ink within the “hipster-hop” blogosphere of late.

    It always bothered me that the “next generation” of hip-hop writers who began funneling in during the early aughts, and brought rap criticism to what had previously been largely segregated (both musically and racially) websites and publications, felt this reflexive need to tear down the critical darlings of the past, who were overnight recast as being mechanical, joyless, luddite and, worst of all, only listened to by white people (because if there’s one thing that white, male, college-educated music critics absolutely loathe, it’s the notion of rap music that appeals to white people).

    I don’t get the impression that this need to bury the past was unique to that era, or to rap criticism specifically, but this instance had an especially nasty anti-intellectual undertone to it. The breadth of acceptable subject matter for a mainstream black musician, hip-hop or otherwise, has always been pretty narrow, and seeing media outlets suddenly blast “backpack” or “conscious” rap for not being “fun” enough, and being too concerned with the horrendously fucked-up state of the black community instead of just letting their hair down, popping some bottles of overpriced liqueur and making vague, nonspecific threats of violence to any brown folk who dare impede their moneymaking potential, was more than a little unsettling. I never understood the dissonance of “indie”-worshiping music outlets shitting on rappers for failing to be commercial enough.

    But now, after this decade of critics hammering down on any moderately-ambitious or intellectual rap act and propping up guys like Wayne as the new black music geniuses of our era, we have a rap landscape where people like Big Sean, Tyga and MGK can not only become stars, but have to be taken seriously as “pop musicians”. It’s like the mainstream rap landscape has become such scorched earth that even the dudes evangelizing “Purple Haze” as this generation’s equivalent to “Songs in the Key of Life” have been forced to call bullshit and retreat back to the relentlessly un-commercial sounds of the past.

    Great art movements are always a reaction to times and places plagued by really horrendous social, cultural or political conditions. When you consider that the original “backpack” movement was a reaction to the waning days of the Clinton administration and the “Shiny Suit” hip-hop era, which in retrospect weren’t all that terrible, the hip-hop born from this current morass of cultural and political turmoil has the potential to be some genuinely revolutionary shit. Though not overt in it’s influences, the general sentiment of that Killer Mike album feels like the first great rap record of the Occupy era, and I’m excited to see what comes next.

    • if your post was about 4 paragraphs shorter, i probably would’ve read it.

      • You’re missing out — it’s extremely valid commentary and I enjoyed reading it.

        • It was well-written and certainly contained some great points. It really does feel as if there has been a critical shift towards the homogenised, highest common denominator formulas in modern day hip hop and the days where smart underground hip hop would get deserved attention and bubble to the top have slowed down a lot.

          But I have to say that Kerda may be casting a broad stroke about critics blasting said “backpack rap” and elevating towards the dumbed-down mainstream…thruth is, the reason may lie more in the fact that there has been less quality backpack rap out there since the late ’90s, early 2000s. There has been a steady stream of attempts bym some of the usual suspects and newcomers, but overall, I haven’t been excited by as much content in that scene as I was years ago. Atmosphere lost steam, Lupe turned boring, Talib and Mos haven’t broken any new ground, People Under the Stairs aren’t churning out the gems, etc. It is great to see El-P back in action with some seriously new sounding stuff.

          Also – Odd Future is terribly overrated and overhyped. Their beats are boring garbage and their lyrics are shallow shock value bullshit.


    • lol@”the Occupy era”

      who will do the Tea Party rap album? History in the Making.

  6. Slaps hard. Sounds great played loud and in headphones.

    Lyrically on point. It’s paranoid like a mf’er.

    I lovin’ it, a lot!

  7. * I’m damn it. I’m!

  8. This album is seriously pure awesome. “The Full Retard” alone makes this album one of the best rap albums of the year.

  9. I still thought R.A.P. Music was better

  10. Ha, I totally agree with the ‘attacking me’ description. I always give El-P’s music a listen because I think his music holds a unique place in hip-hop – and he did produce The Cold Vein, after all – but I rarely find myself coming back to it. Oh well, it is all about preferences and I would prefer people liking a cool dude like El-P to some of the other acts out there.

  11. “Oi oi! I come to kick the shit out ya groin, boy!”….come on, it’s “Oi, Oi! I’ll RUGBY kick the shit out of your groin boy”, it came with the lyrics for christ’s sake.

  12. I still think El-P is better in small doses, a la guest verse. The best tracks on his last non-instro record, I’ll sleep when your dead, the best tracks were always ones with Guest MC’s on it, like Run the Numbers.

  13. are El-P’s beats still the aural equivalent of waterboarding (i know i know, people say “that’s the point!!!!” — STFU yo,) or has he pulled back a bit

  14. to the commenter above, how is adolescent cynicism about any and everything “cool?” c’mon now.

  15. I dunno – I think I like RAP Music better.

  16. I loved Company Flow. I always saw El’s style as a continuation of the stuff The Bomb Squad were doing in that you wondered how they ever made such crushingly powerful music out of such abrasive sounds.

    What with this, Death Grips and some other stuff like that awesome Survival Tactics track by Joey Badass and Capital Steez, I’m feeling more positive about the future of hip-hop than I have for a long time.

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