Thursday, February 26, 2009

El-P - I'll Sleep When You're Dead

In a way, El-P could be considered a modern renaissance man (at least as far as hip-hop is concerned). In addition to being a skilled rapper and producer (formerly of Company Flow), as well as one of the most prolific and widely skilled voices of underground rap today, he is also the co-founder and owner of Def Jux, a highly influential label that makes up one of the largest pillars of modern independent hip-hop. So it should be no surprise that his solo career has come to combine the numerous facets of his repertoire, showcasing both his intelligent and forceful lyrical ability as well as his excellent ability for composition. On his second full-length solo album, I'll Sleep When You're Dead, El-P brings these elements together to create a dark, paranoid and fully realized world, pessimistic in its viewpoints, honest in its confessions, and ultimately dissociated from reality.

Do you think that if you were falling in space
that you would slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?
faster and faster
for a long time you wouldn't feel anything...

From the hushed whispers and ominous ringing that opens "Tasmanian Pain Coaster" (including the above sample from Twin Peaks), we are immediately introduced to El-P's unique and dissociative style. His beats sound alien even after repeated listens, with the constant implementation of estranged synths giving off the intimate detachment of a drug-induced fervour. Indeed, drugs play a large role in this album; not only are they referenced liberally (the aforementioned "Tasmanian Pain Coaster" is about PCP), but the production takes on a very psychedelic tone, overloading the senses with disparate elements as if the stated goal is to divorce the listener from corporeality. Crowd samples and foreign-sounding noises are channelled continually, fleeting yet disconcerting in their appearances, as they work to bring the listener further into the insular and suffocating world I'll Sleep When You're Dead exists in. For what it is, the production is often infectious, creating a diverse and imaginative landscape for El-P to preach over. Occasionally, the beats are too dense and too discordant for their own good, but overall, they show one of the most innovative and atypical producers in hip-hop at his best.

El-P's voice slices through the disorientation of the production with an unwavering strength, able to convey both confidence and compassion with the same preternatural gift for gab. Indeed, this is possibly the strongest lyrical work I have ever seen in regards to hip-hop, with El-P moving back and forth between surrealist stream of consciousness, foreboding narration, and effacing self-examination with ultimate poise. El-P's range includes tracks as varied as the sneering defiance of "Dear Sirs" (replete with apocalyptic imagery), the Brazil-meets-Blade Runner dystopian fantasy of "Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)", and the tender balance between love and guilt as examined on "The Overly Dramatic Truth". While these songs all take on different subjects and in different ways, they are brought together by their starkly bleak worldview. "Dear Sirs" can be read as a long, bitter critique of modern society, "The Overly Dramatic Truth" deals with one man's attempt to come to terms with his reciprocated love for a younger woman (the overriding suggestion being that he cannot), and while "Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)" starts out with a promise of redemption, it destroys all semblance of it by the end.

There are a number of standout tracks here that deserve mentioning for one reason or another, but a personal favourite is "The League of Extraordinary Nobodies", a seemingly simple song about getting high at a party that follows a deeply cynical and anti-social narrator as he describes the scene around him. The paranoid and remarkably self-aware style of rambling El-P utilizes here is a treat for anyone who's ever been in the same situation, "surrounded by the friendliest of strangers who would sooner kill themselves than give a fuck if [they] were dead".

I just counted in my head how many people in this room I'm talking to that I would never give the time
And here we are, all being vain and looking at ourselves in mirrors very closely nodding straight up in a line
All the funny little stories that are told are being fueled by what amounts to nothing more than minor crime
But I'm a whore, and I'm exploring territory where the party and the pussy both are numbered by the dime

The song is clever and endlessly quotable, and as the narrator's chagrin at the senseless repetition of his and everyone else's actions grows, a laugh track is introduced to the mix to poke fun at the predictability of the party-goers from a figurative perspective.

I've been noticing the fact that nothing glorious can happen anymore, we've run the gamut of our filth
But here I am again, pretending spontaneity exists with idiots all lifted out their little gills
Aren't you disturbed that everything you did tonight is something else you did already and its meaning is still nill
And all the people in your presence are just weapons, it's as simple as the theory that the dying love to kill

I could go on gushing, but the point would be better summed up in short: with I'll Sleep When You're Dead, El-P created a modern hip-hop masterpiece. The dark and disorienting production works perfectly with the world-weary cynicism of the lyrics. The songs are extremely well-written and composed, and El-P's stoic, often surreal manner of rapping only adds to the emotional resonance of his statements. But while I'll Sleep When You're Dead may be bleak - and it most certainly is bleak - it is also vigilant in spite of it all, unwilling to look away from the darker side of life for even a moment. But this album is not merely a celebration of desolation. Rather, it is a recognition of the necessity of being aware and the consequences of what it means to be aware - even if that means a few sleepless nights.

this is the sound of what you don't know killing you


Anonymous said...

wow. thanks, man. now that i read this it's different than just downloading an album, now i'm certain i'm gonna buy it. great review!

cretin said...

cool, good to hear!

this is probably my second favourite hip-hop album, if not outright favourite, so it's good to see I did it justice. lemme know if you like it!

Tony said...

Definitely one of my favorite albums of all time. The album cover was my first tattoo.

Anonymous said...

Keep on posting such articles. I love to read stories like that. Just add some pics :)

CosmicFugue said...

thanks so much for posting this. i lost my copy and due to mediafire's recent mass deletion, i was pulling my hair out trying to find it online. good thing i stumbled across your blog and the excellent write-up that this album deserves. keep on doing your thing and hope this never gets taken down.