Available on: Laitdbac / Mush LP
It’s funny how things work out. If you’d told me a few years ago that El-P, a man that, let’s face it, despite his ground breaking work both solo and with Company Flow and Cannibal Ox, and his role as co-founder of seminal indie rap label Definitive Jux, seemed about as out of the critical limelight as you could imagine a hip-hop act with those credentials, would be sitting on top of the rap world once again, having made two of the year’s most acclaimed albums (El’s Cancer for Cure and Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, which El produced in full), I’d have laughed. But here he is.
But what of Bigg Jus, the other rapper from Company Flow? If El-P seemed out of favour, then Jus seemed to have disappeared completely – until this year, he hadn’t released an album since 2005’s Poor People’s Day. But here he is too, on paper apparently reinvigorated, and despite Machines That Make Civilisation Fun not being as composed, well-produced or collected an album as Cancer for Cure, it stands out as one of the year’s most demanding, lasting listens.
Machines isn’t an album about individual tracks. There are moments that stand out – two listens is all it takes for the heaving beat of lead single ‘Black Roses’ to get in your head and stay there – but generally, it’s a record that succeeds through the overall picture it paints. In both its production and its rapping, it sounds not suffocating but suffocated, by both modern capitalist culture (in a recent interview about the album, Jus explains that its title is a reference to “machines just fucking up the world, and we just running along with it … just pissing into the wind, basically”) and presumably whatever personal reasons Jus has for not releasing an album in seven years (granted, in said interview he comes across as quite jovial about the whole process). In fact, there are points where it sounds like Jus is losing it completely: on ‘Game Boy Predator’ he lists video game titles over a beat that genuinely sounds like Cremations-era Cold Cave, and even when the production lightens up, such as on the cooing ‘Empire is a Bitch’, a gorgeously smoky backroom poker game of a beat, he sounds on the brink.
I don’t know Bigg Jus’s personal circumstances, but although El-P sounds like he’s rapping with a point to prove on Cancer for Cure, he also sounds confident in his abilities and composed in his anger. In contrast, throughout Machines Jus sounds at best stressed and lost, and at worst like he’s losing control completely (if you thought ‘Game Boy Predator’ was an odd track, wait ‘til you hear ‘Food for Thought (Shit Sandwiches)’). Even on an instrumental track as optimistic as ‘Hard Times for New Lovers’ would sound out of context, Jus’s performance on the tracks that surround it colour it mournful.
In some ways, Jus’s performance here is similar to Thom Yorke’s descent into paranoia on Kid A, but whereas that album closed on ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’, a song that’s beautiful, hopeful and, crucially, not alone (“I think you’re crazy / maybe” implies company, at least), Machines just skulks back into the night with a nondescript instrumental closer. It’s far from perfect – Jus has admitted, in fact, that some of the tracks on the album are basically first drafts – but that’s not the point: if a more desolate, worn down and hopeless sounding hip-hop album emerges in 2012 I don’t think I’d want to hear it. This is uncomfortable enough.