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New York rapper Cage is only in his 30s, but he’s already known a lifetime of suffering. As a child, the MC was abused by both by his heroin-addict father and stepfather; as a teen he became addicted to drugs and landed at a psychiatric hospital, where he attempted to kill himself. After his emergence, Cage spent the early ’90s hooking up with exalted New York hip-hop figures like Pete Nice and KMD, and in 1997 released “Agent Orange.” a single inspired by the film A Clockwork Orange. The themes of abuse, addiction, violence, and chaos also informed Cage’s 2002 debut, Movies for the Blind, which featured his dexterous, Slim Shady–like flow and psycho-rap storytelling. Critically acclaimed follow-up Hell’s Winter—released on Definitive Jux in 2006—was an artistic leap forward: Cage continued to explore the horrors of his life but ceased glorifying them and pledged to curtail his substance-abusing and misogynistic ways. In recent years there have even been signs that things may be coming together for the rapper: He teamed up with his good friend, Transformers star Shia LaBeouf, to make a biopic about his life, and LaBeouf directed the video for “I Never Knew You,” the first single from Cage’s new album, Depart From Me. Still, Cage hasn’t completely abandoned his old ways: Depart From Me is not an optimistic record. Though “I Never Knew You” describes a woman being sent to the narrator directly from God, for example, and in the end he ends up stalking and killing her. Much of the album’s material is culled from recent real-life horrors, including the death of Cage’s producer and friend Camu Tao, and the rapper acknowledges that following through on his previous promises of reform won’t be so easy. “If you relapse you’re quietly falling/No one to catch you/So the monkey on my back is still flinging shit at you,” he imparts on “Nothing Left To Say.” Cage has said in interviews that he tried to make an album to help “a 12-year-old going through some shit in his life,” and indeed Depart From Me is populated by obese youngsters (“Fat Kids Need An Anthem”), disenchanted youth (“Beat Kids”), and horny male predators (“Teenage Hands”). Featuring production by El-P, F. Sean Martin, and Aesop Rock, the work has an apocalyptic sound and coarse texture to match. Palko sings as much as he raps, and the hip-hop beats of his previous works have been largely replaced by surging bass, mountains of guitar feedback, and fuzzy synth. (There are no samples to speak of and no guest appearances.) But the work gels nicely, and rock/rap hybrid tracks like “Nothing Left to Say” wouldn’t sound out of place on alternative-rock radio. The album’s big hooks make this bitter pill easier to swallow, as does the fact that, for all his despair, Cage refuses to give up. “As beautiful as this hole is,” he concludes on “Eating Its Way Out of Me,” “I need to climb out.”
Cage performs Wednesday, July 29, at DC9