“Do you think that if you were falling in space, that you would slow down after a while or go faster and faster? Faster and faster. For a long time you wouldn’t feel anything, then you’d burst into fire forever” (from the intro of “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead”)
Despite the risk of pushing the core group of Company Flow fanatics into a frenzy (and the resulting property damage that may ensue) this review comes three weeks before the reported March 20th release date of El-Producto’s latest joint for a reason. In an age of bootlegs being leaked early and mixtapes flooding the market with half-assed product, when’s the last time you got really geeked about an album release? Like, marking the days off the calendar with a sharpie geeked? That’s so rare these days not just because of industry ills, but also because only a handful of indie artists (the only rappers really connecting to fans, out of love or necessity) have the ability, sincerity of voice and determination to cultivate and maintain the type of intense following that El (and his entire Def Jux camp) have earned over the years. Ever since his ground-breaking work at Rawkus, a personal connection was established between the fans and El-P’s output (and the artist himself by extension), mainly because it has been built on foundations we ourselves hold important (chiefly: integrity, candor, and dopeness). Feeling a part of a select group of like-minded souls has its commercial advantages for the artist being consumed and feels damn good to boot. Galaxies removed from the unveiling of the latest Jay-Z comeback (which feels more like a coordinated corporate ad campaign than an artistic statement), the release of “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” will be an event, shared by a (trans)national community of believers. When’s the last time heads felt part of a genuine Hip Hop movement? It’s also notable to understand that because 90% of the people who’ll cop it are going to do so no matter what I say here, reviewing it merely as critique or praise would be irrelevant. Instead I’ll use this forum to spark your appetite. So that before falling asleep for the next three weeks you squirm a little in anticipation. So that all my fellow flat-not-fat pocket cats out there have enough time to scrounge up the necessary couch change. Finally, this is so that we can once again experience that amazing feeling that comes through waiting for the next statement from an artist we feel speaks to us directly. So like a first timer about to nut, hold on tight and enjoy the pre-release tension!
“Why should I be sober
When God is so clearly dusted out his mind”
“The whole design got my mind crying
If I’m lying I’m dying”
The first thing that struck me upon first listen to “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” was the slight but disheartening tone of resignation in El’s voice, which is usually so full of righteous and militant rage; initially at least, that’s why the weariness he displays at points here is so jarring. It’s soon apparent that this is the voice of a veteran pioneer, reflecting ten years of swimming upstream in the polluted river that is the rap industry. No longer purely rebellious and playful, his tone now suggests glints of a world-weary resignation, the speech of a man both less invincible but more assured, less eager but more funky, less urgent but more confident. Sure, he’s always had a caustic wit and cynical outlook, but here it becomes more pervasive, like one too many disappoints finally left hope ineffectual. In short, El now sounds like a man who’s mastered his craft, but in doing so has slowly discovered that he inhabits a world he can’t change. In many ways this subtle shift in tone, now simultaneously rebellious and conceding, and initially so concerning to me, proves itself superior by virtue of its ability to more accurately reflect the ugly and sobering realities of the world (at least for me, a diehard cynic).
“It went from battle rap to gun talk like we didn’t notice the change… yea, right”
“I hear the cackles of the crowd that’s laughing at us and we haven’t even gotten to the part where it’s a joke”
Besides his aforementioned ability to voice unspoken feelings we all have about things big and small, another large part of El-P’s appeal comes in his obvious love and deep knowledge of Hip-Hop, from its core values to its past pioneers to its musical expressions. In a game structured on follow-the-leader creative rigidity, he’s able to get away with so many avant-garde choices (i.e. featuring guests Trent Reznor, Cat Power and The Mars Volta) because in the end he’s a true head that knows the rules so well he can both follow them in spirit while taking his expression outside previous thematic and musical parameters. As in, the grating and two-ton sounds found here are at times more industrial grindcore than boom bap, but he still takes time to shout out his DJ making those apocalyptic noises. The immense credibility he holds allows him to experiment wildly, making a car-themed joint that would sound more appropriate accompanying an “Animatrix” robot tank battle than bumping out your hooptie, for example, or knowingly fucking with our conventions of what indie rap should sound like (as he does on the intro of “Smithereens (Stop Crying),” which starts with a sunny melody before a voice demands “bring me… the dramatic intro machine!” and his familiar sonic assault jumps in). It doesn’t hurt either that he produces the whole album himself, which at times creates a potentially dragging sonic uniformity that begs comparison to Redman’s “Dare iz a Darkside,” but ultimately makes this a special and unique statement, rather than just another collection of Timbo and Just Blaze produced tracks (why do you think “Hell Hath No Fury” was so appealing, dummy?). So when the Producto occasionally steps into today’s wack rap minefield to take a few shots, he does so furtively and with the authority justly afforded him. As if he knows there’s ultimately no point in critiquing something so pervasive as industry politics and the lure of money. The only thing we can do is do our thing, and do it right, fuck the devilishment.
“To answer the question: yes
The city wants you gone
And that’s the only thing connecting us but the connection is so strong”
“Down here, it’s 30% every year to front the world’s end
But I’m broke on Atlantic Ave tryna cop the bootleg instead”
What is Hip Hop without the post-industrial urban landscape? Not a whole lot. It is precisely the physical geography of space and place that gives rap its truth and its beauty, however ugly the economics and politics of that truth happen to be. El-P has always understood this, infusing his expressions squarely in the city and its unique manifestations. So while he can still dream of an urban utopia where the stupid aren’t so proud and “every hydrant in a Brooklyn time summer moment is opened up by cops” (as on the wickedly biting political critique “Dear Sirs”), his present reality reeks of alienation, abrasiveness and ultimate oblivion, all cloaked in perhaps the most dehumanizing of the city’s traits, its cruel randomness. This is, per his usual, reflected masterfully in the production, which delivers the usual assault of funk and gloom, rarely if ever becoming grueling or tedious. “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” is ultimately his own unique and skewed view of a universe seen through a lens of concrete and cynicism, a beautiful chaos where even the few guests (Aesop Rock and Cage) are sucked into his orbit (black hole?). Humorous vocal samples are buried so deep in sonic despair that they manifest as grisly rather than whimsical. Hip Hop as pure joy is almost a distant memory, as is life itself. Laced among El’s masterful verses are narratives of the everyday around the way, sprinkled with glimpses of details that reveal more than some cats entire albums; likewise, seemingly obtuse lines are later revealed to cut to the core of something every emotionally and economically disenfranchised city dweller has felt deep inside at some point. Nothing here is superfluous or inane; like his fellow heavyweight Ghostface, the density of metaphoric and visual content is incredible.
“So what the fuck are you feeling that makes the struggle so wondrous
Enough to arrogantly pull what’s left of the rug out from under us
I think not; you in the same barrel all us other crabs are caught
And if I have to live you have to live whether you like it or not”
Ultimately, we see that to survive in the city as a racial or class-based “Other” (which in itself is a potent metaphor for El-P’s struggles to survive and thrive in today’s money-first market), one needs to not only have an unshakable viewpoint, but also needs to manifest that viewpoint in everything he does, from the way he walks the dirty streets to the reasons he has for continuing the struggle (i.e. justifying his existence in a landscape that could care less). That’s what Hip Hop has always been about at its coreâ€”a way to deal with the blighted city’s crushing qualities, and that’s why El-P remains so intoxicating.