As one of the architects of left-of-center hip-hop for the last 20 years, El-P has done it all as an MC, producer and record-label head (including his excellent production work on the recent Killer Mike album, "R.A.P. Music," reviewed HERE). His infrequent solo albums are invariably carefully plotted, meticulously crafted, and yet brutally visceral. You want kick drums that sound like howitzers? Vocals that suggest the desperation of a POW who’s been kept awake against his will for 72 straight hours? You’ve come to the right place.
“Cancer 4 Cure,” only El-P’s third solo album in 11 years, is packed with music that doesn’t so much invite the listener into the room as barge through the door, guns blazing. “Request Denied” blows in like an ominous cloud, followed by stampeding drums. In the lexicon of hip-hop, the 808 kick drum and its variations are as sacred as the electric guitar is to rock. El-P’s drums pummel all opposition, then leave space for growling keyboards to roam like wolves.
“Cancer 4 Cure” is not the after-party of hip-hop fantasy, but a desolate afterworld populated by killers and thieves. “The Full Retard” is interrupted by a female voice that reassures, “Where harmony and love reign, no longer do we live in a society bent on its own destruction.” No such luck. Some may read “Cancer 4 Cure” as science-fiction fantasy, but the settings in these songs feel awfully familiar and true to life, a world in which violent crime is on the uptick, Occupy protests fill the streets, and dictatorships around the world are being toppled.
“Don’t make me suffer this dimension straight,” El-P pleads on “Works Every Time.” “I’d give anything, anything, anything to go home.” But home is under siege. In “Drones Over Bklyn,” a ghostly air-raid siren sounds a warning. Deception, paranoia and fear cloak nearly every track. Chaos invites vigilantism in “For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mums the Word).”
As a lyricist, El-P swings hard between abstract images and more concrete snapshots, indelible scenes from a movie that can haunt for years. “To the mother of my enemy, I just killed your son/He died with his face to the sky and it cannot be undone,” a “Tougher Colder Killer” announces. Few artists create a tougher, colder world as convincingly.