Available on: Fat Possum LP
2012 has so far been a pretty good year for rap music, not least because it’s brought us the return of some great names. The latest to return to the spotlight is El-P, one third of New York revolutionaries Company Flow, the brains behind seminal underground hip-hop label Definitive Jux, and producer of some of the most individual beats of that period – his finest moment perhaps not coming on any of his own records, but on his work for Cannibal Ox’s still untouchable The Cold Vein. After five years of relative silence, El-P returns this month with two albums: first, a front-to-back production job for Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music and now this, his third solo album. One thing’s for sure: El’s still loud, brash, honest and angry.
The gritty production and in-your-face lyrics that defined much of El’s previous output are still present, as reliable as a troll in a YouTube comments thread. The music hits hard and makes no compromise, a clear continuation of what has made El one of the most unique voices – both literally and production wise – of his generation. The Wire contributor Andrew ‘Noz’ Nosnitsky remarked of signs of stagnation present in this album, commenting that “El is a master craftsman who keeps rebuilding the same sculpture”, and although there’s an element of truth to that, if El was ten years ahead of the game in 2002 – which I strongly believe he was – then for him to be pursuing the same angles now at least keeps him relevant on a technicality. There’s always something to be said for if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and El’s past work was only broken when he meant it that way. Take the Bomb Squad, whose classic output is frequently compared to El-P’s own work, and whose contribution to Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted has been talked up as a major inspiration on R.A.P. Music: they very consciously tried to “move forward” in the noughties, and haven’t yet ended up anywhere very interesting that I’ve heard. El’s still clearly honest to himself and his audience, and his constant reminders that things aren’t all rosy are surely just as necessary today.
Besides, the music is certainly some of El’s most engaging yet, and should possess real lasting power. While lead single ‘The Full Retard”s looped vocal has brainwashing qualities in its hypnotic use, the beat is kept engaging with switches and edits and El’s vocal delivery digs into you; creeps under your skin and stays there. ‘Oh Hail No’ features a stand-out opening rhyme for everybody’s inner teen, El exclaiming “ever notice when you talk I just cut myself? / On some ultimate fuck you, go fuck yourself”, while the production’s upbeat energy gets nicely inverted for Danny Brown’s guest appearance, Brown emerging as a close-to-perfect counterpoint to El’s delivery. It’s that always welcome hat tip from a legend to a relative newcomer showing that there’s more to Detroit’s latest prodigal son than mere hype. I could go on breaking down the songs but I fear that I’d just be repeating myself – Cancer for Cure may be consistent in its sound, but very little of it is disposable, and every listen only helps to reinforces the emotional rollercoaster that is a full listen to it.
As a massive fan of the Rawkus and Def Jux golden era I don’t think I’ll ever tire of following the artistic evolution of someone like El-P, even if his masterpieces remain aesthetically similar. When you think how easily fans fall out of love with artists because of their choices, moving from one scene to another, from one style to another (and this applies to both the artist and fan, of course), it makes El’s choice to stick to what he does best seem all the more uncompromising, and you’d hope it means that all those who liked him then will still like him now. Whatever, people are fickle, but I’ll still be here banging my head in ten years, pumping that shit in my system.