Hip-hop has a notoriously short attention span and a ridiculous number of prejudices, and El-P, also known as El Producto but born Jamie Meline, has several strikes against him. The Brooklyn-based producer first made his mark on the music scene in the mid-90s, a million years ago in hip-hop time; he’s remained resolutely independent and disdainful of bling throughout his long career, marking him as one of those dreaded granola-munching backpackers, and most of all he’s been a consistently inventive sonic pioneer, scoffing at clichĂ©s and ignoring genre boundaries while consistently pushing the envelope. But take him for granted or marginalize him at your own loss, because he has just crafted two undeniable masterpieces, instantly ranking among the best rap albums of the new millennium.
Cancer 4 Cure only is the prolific beatmaster and selfless collaborator’s third solo album, and it revisits the wasted urban landscape familiar from his earlier work, notably I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2007), as yet another epic of dystopian paranoia, incredibly dark even by this doom monger’s standards. Ol’ Bill Burroughs sets the stage by croaking the first words heard on the disc, a quote from Nova Express: “This is war to extermination—fight cell by cell through bodies and mind screens of the earth. Souls rotten from the orgasm drug. Flesh shuddering from the ovens. Prisoners of the earth, come out. Storm the studio.” And from there, storm the studio Meline certainly does.
Synthesizers buzz, drone, and aggressively hiss as if someone has driven a stake through their analog hearts; all manner of street noise contributes to the enveloping wall of lo-fi noise and confusion, and the grooves hammer away with the insistent desperation of a man buried alive slamming on the lid of his coffin. But this is an album about struggling to live: “Just because there’s darkness that I see and think about, it doesn’t mean I’ve given into it,” Meline has said. “I think the record is ultimately about not giving into it.”
El-P and guest rappers Killer Mike, eXquire and Danny Brown explore this theme by inhabiting characters ranging from an army veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress (“Tougher Colder Killer”), to a drug dealer feeling the lure of the obliteration he peddles (“Works Every Time”), to the horrified observer of a woman struggling with domestic abuse (“For My Upstairs Neighbor”). But there’s humor, too, albeit of the black variety: “I’m a Rocky, run a hundred miles before my coffee” is a boast from the single “The Full Retard,” as sly and funny a comment on mainstream hip-hop’s endless braggadocio as you’ll find, while the album as a whole is a brilliant example of what the music could and should be.
El-P also plays a significant role on R.A.P. Music, crafting a similar though nevertheless startlingly fresh backdrop to showcase the talents of Killer Mike, an artist who was at risk of suffering from some of the same unjust “old news” dismissals. Michael Render first surfaced as a protĂ©gĂ© of Outkast, guesting on Stankonia (2000), appearing in the movie and on the soundtrack for Idlewild (2006), and lending a hand on Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx (2003). He launched his own career that same year, scoring a hit with “A.D.I.D.A.S.” from his Columbia Records debut Monster, but then he went underground with a series of self-released discs and mixtapes that garnered much less attention and seemed to be paving the way for footnote status.
Well, Mike blows that designation to smithereens on R.A.P. Music, an acronym for “Rebellious African People,” and simultaneously one of those familiar “news reports from the violent streets” and a love letter to the power of hip-hop to transcend the same. “[The] closest I’ve ever come to seeing or feeling God is listening to rap music,” he intones at the start of the title track, evincing an optimism that puts his own unique spin on his new producer/mentor’s search for a reason to live.
With a gruff and gripping delivery that recalls Ice Cube at his angriest with early N.W.A and his first few solo albums, Mike further distinguishes himself with a sense of history that runs broader and deeper than any this side of Chuck D., not only putting the music he loves in the context of African-American sounds from Robert Johnson through Nina Simone to Bitches Brew, but tracing the development of a political consciousness formed amid the violent hypocrisy of the shooting of Amadou Diallo and the Gipper’s war on drugs, and drawing a line to the present: “Ronald Reagan was an actor, not at all a factor/Just an employee of the country’s real masters/Just like the Bushes, Clinton and Obama/Just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters.”
Bleak? The truth can be, but as with Cancer 4 Cure, the act of speaking it ultimately is life-affirming.
EI-P, Cancer 4 Cure (Fat Possum)
Rating on the 4-star scale: 4 stars.
Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music (Williams Street)
Rating on the 4-star scale: 4 stars.