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When El-P put out his last solo album, Fantastic Damage, in 2002, he had the good business sense to release a separate disc with instrumental-only versions of its songs. It was a backhanded admission that his dense, fragmented rhymes cluttered things up a bit: A generation of hard-headed stoners could enjoy his bleak beatmaking without his words getting in the way.
It’s not that Fantastic Damage was lyrically klutzy. On the contrary, strong thematic threads ran through songs such as “Squeegee Man Shooting” (’80s New York nostalgia) and “Stepfather Factory” (dehumanized family relationships). But those were the exceptions. Most of the time, El-P’s rapping seemed to be at odds with his production talents. On the album’s best song, “Deep Space 9mm,” apocalyptic synth-funk constantly counterattacked his scattershot wordplay.
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, his follow-up, is a confounding reversal: El-P’s raps are far better constructed, but the grooves are far less interesting. He clearly worked his ass off; lyrically, he’s damn near literary at times. Sonically, however, many of the tracks are weighed down by over-thought studio craftsmanship and recycled elements of alt-rap history. As a result, many of the beats sound strangely sanitized. Somebody needs to tell our man to go the Jay-Z route and release an a cappella version of the album. Maybe there’s another Danger Mouse out there looking to make the next great mashup masterpiece.
The rhymes on the new album are more straightforward than before, though “straightforward” is a relative term when it comes to El-P. His lyrics aren’t exactly stout with Hemingway-esque precision and economy—this is still the same guy who helped popularize post-haiku phrasing and meta-abstract street slang a decade ago when his original group, Company Flow, was setting a downcast tone for ’90s underground hip-hop. His lines are alternately clipped and wordy, and they sometimes spill out like the spiel of a con man, testing the limits of each bar: “Why should I be sober when God is so clearly dusted out of his mind/With cherubs puffin’ a bundle tryin’ to remember why he even tried/Down here it’s 30 percent every year to fund the world’s end/But I’m broke on Atlantic Ave. tryin’ to cop the bootleg instead,” he raps on “Smithereens (Stop Cryin).” That’s only one example of his lucidity across the album—his lines explicitly lay out an existential crisis instead of abstractly suggesting one.
But even though the song’s beat is thick, thick, thick, there’s nothing in it that you haven’t heard before: the klaxons, helicopter chops, heartbeat bass notes, and horn samples are El-P’s standard building blocks. They might be layered in geeked-out new ways—every corner of the mix is laced with something—but not everybody has the tricked-out sound system necessary to exploit such nuances. Play the song on an iPod, and the mix seems a tad soupy. And it’s not the only track on I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead with that affliction.
Still, about half of the disc rewards repeated listens: “Up All Night,” for instance, impeccably balances an unstoppable tribal drumbeat and a kick-ass catch phrase (“I might have been born yesterday, sir/But I stayed up all night”), and “Drive” is a caustic extended metaphor about a nation trapped in cars (“You’re riding shotty with Jesus of NASCAReth”). And beyond those keepers, there are a handful of certifiable showstoppers that successfully blend noise and theme.
“Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)” is the most completely imagined of those tracks—it condenses a movie’s worth of content into 4 1/2 minutes, and its narrative deftly drives the sonics. The plot has tinges of rehashed adolescent animé-inspired fantasy—a guard falls for a female prisoner in some Blade Runner-ish future—but the song’s structure is pure postmodernism. El-P and Def Jux labelmate Cage share the intro, which sets a scene of dread and emptiness. Later it becomes obvious that they’re two prison hacks chatting on the job. El-P tells Cage he’s falling for prisoner 247690Z; Cage’s character says he should rape the girl; El-P retorts that he’s truly smitten. He asks half-rhetorically, “Should a creature so sublime and young really be in line for the gun?”
Then the conversation breaks, and the song picks up in the near future, with the new couple on the lam: “I’m the first to touch her without gloves on/She’s the first to kiss me without crying,” El-P says. This is how it is for the true nerds, prison ship or not: Before love is sweet, it’s a distant, alien thing. In the background, the beat buzzes like a nameless highway.
A couple of other songs are also fully realized integrations of beats and rhymes. “Flyentology” is a meditation on man’s ability to accept the influence of a deity, with an electro-nihilist assist from Trent Reznor; “Tasmanian Pain Coaster” is an impressionistic street epic with cameos by members of the Mars Volta. Neither song boasts a revolutionary groove—their dystopic hum-and-bounce will be familiar to fans—but they’re fitting nonetheless. And to a lesser extent, “The League of Extraordinary Nobodies” is distinguished by its laugh-track punctuation and cranky morality-play lyrics (“I get surrounded by the friendliest of strangers who would sooner kill themselves than give a fuck if I were dead”).
Elsewhere, though, El-P’s game plan involves an unexpectedly flat mix of angry-dude ruminations and revisited anti-pop contrarianism. The well-machined boom-bap of “EMG,” “The Overly Dramatic Truth,” and “No Kings” never rises above a dull roar, even though some clever boasts and social observations bubble up: “See cop smile/Peep cop’s gun/Now see little juvenile me in Reeboks run/Through the projected transformation of the catacombs, son/Makin’ it home’s so fun,” he raps on “EMG,” connecting the actions of a turnstile-hopper to a more universal sense of survivalism. It’s a shame the music and the rest of the lyrics aren’t as inspired.
The knee-jerk reaction would be to respect such tracks merely for their aural density. After all, El-P’s native intelligence shines through even when a song’s overall sound is less than the sum of its parts. But simply putting in tons of effort at the mixing board—or going high-concept just because it’s possible—doesn’t guarantee an artistic triumph. Plenty of hip-hop acts, from Public Enemy to Outkast, have seen their careers stall despite displaying an abundance of smarts. A rut is a rut, and in that sense, the copious noise on I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is curiously rote. El-P’s love affair with words, however, has obviously gotten hotter.