April 5, 2007

Lyrical Hip Hop Scramble

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Visionary rapper/producer El-P has always been a “political” rapper, but his method of attack defies boundaries between personal and national, dazzling and tarnished, cynical and sincere. Although everything he writes about is entangled in a political matrix, he isn’t rapping about ideology or democracy or revolution. Instead, his work is deeply personal, focusing on the wounds national politics and culture inflict on our lives. On his first album in four years, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, this means watching the World Trade Center fall from a Burger King rooftop and smart-ass raps about humvees without bulletproof lining on streets that look like Fallujah.
Unlike many underground acts rehashing the mid-nineties, here the beats are packed dense and futuristic, to the point of claustrophobia. El-P isn’t afraid of anything — guest spots from Trent Reznor and Cat Power, radio ad interludes, a laugh track and piano sing-alongs are all folded into the glorious mess. The album’s one weakness is that this furious mash-up is almost entirely the middle of an explosion. What it could use, more than anything, is the occasional moment of silence, or at least a breath for air. It’s always strongly rhythmic, unlike Subtle’s purely weird weirdness, but every moment of every track is aimed at flooding your ears.
On the best tracks (EMG) he breaks out of repetition, but the more formulaic ones tend to wash together. Without guest producers to change up the backing or adjust the mixing —both the vocals and backing are equally loud, so that whether he is shouting or whispering the backing dominates — the songs tend towards a single sound. That sound happens to be one you’ve never heard, tarnished sonic spinball boss tunes layered over flattened old-school bass and blunt drum kit beats, but it is remarkably uniform through much of the album.
Somehow though, he scrambles to his feet after wild topical jumps that most rappers never dare. Lyrically, it’s like watching Youtube.com videos of the parkor kid who pulls off every ridiculous rooftop leap while the others wipe out and crack their heads open training on a jungle gym below. Most rappers aren’t even trying this mash of cultural and personal and political, and those that do are more likely to knock all their teeth out on a low railing than anything else.
This style is often unbelievably successful. And he’s delighted by his own incomprehensibility, the layers upon layers of plastic trash gems encrusting his politics.
One of the few rappers whose braggadocio adds up to something, when he says “Every little phrase is designed for you to rewind it,” he’s actually right. The complexity of this album and his last, Fantastic Damage, is unparalleled in any rap I’ve ever heard. But at the same time, this one has to be self-destructive.
The central idea, that modern media culture is overwhelming and alienating, can only be convincing on an album this completely saturated.