Every piece of literature I’ve read on Brooklyn producer and rapper El-P has been rife with obscure references to underground hip-hop, a movement I missed entirely as a result of my being about 10 years old at the time. Now I’ve tried to appraise myself of the scene and its major players, but eventually gave up and decided it would be more prevalent to approach his album without obsessing over its predecessors.
I DO know that Cancer 4 Cure is El’s first album in 5 years, but he seems to have benefitted from a really productive spell of late, (he produced Killer Mike’s acclaimed R.A.P. Music in its entirety). Mike also guests on this LP, along with Interpol’s Paul Banks, Despot, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, Danny Brown and Islands‘ frontman Nick Diamonds.
Things start off with a bang as “Request Denied” rumbles along, paving the way for opening single and track-of-the-year contender “The Full Retard.” It’s an assault, both sonically and lyrically, championed by El-P’s flawless production and lightning quick flow.
He gets existential on “Works Every Time,” which features the catchiest chorus on the album, courtesy of Paul Banks’ brief cameo. “Oh Hail No” is absolutely monstrous, with eXquire’s verbal acrobatics and Danny Brown’s stumbling, hilarious verse taking centre stage.
“Stay Down,” as his recent Letterman performance made clear, makes the most sense when performed live. The guitar feedback and Phil Collins-styled drum fills, don’t pull the same weight on the record as they do on stage, yet the track holds its own. It’s also worth noting that while Diamonds’ inclusion on that track might seem slightly bizarre on paper, this track proves that his voice was made to float over El’s hazy production.
And it’s that production that I believe makes this release so unique. The beats are extremely intricate and impeccably crafted, sacrificing 808s and sub-basses for sounds that sound like they were poached from the world of electro-house. They’re raw, but surprisingly pleasing to the ear. Not to say that El’s flow is any less astounding, but it’s so dense and reference-based that it doesn’t have as immediate an impact.
That said, his lyrics paint the picture of a paranoid, cynical character that, at times, sounds a bit like a less outrageous Tyler, The Creator (basically my hypothesis is that what El has done [inadvertently, I would imagine] with Cancer 4 Cure is make the record that Odd Future wish they could pull-off). Raw, atypical beats play host to aggressive, introspective lyrics, but they form a cohesive and consistent effort. He speaks of alienation and paranoia, and his production is equally uncompromising. So while I would suggest that the album doesn’t really give the listener much room to maneuver, I get the feeling El-P meant it to be that way.