El-P raps life in the city
Musicians today are in the enviable but difficult position of having nearly infinite options in making music. Genre barriers are porous, musicians work across disciplines and computers can create and sequence almost any sound. Those with the skills fit to harness the new technology have a wide open canvas. One of those artists is a Brooklyn rapper named Jaime Meline, more widely known as El-P (pronounced LP). His latest album, “Cancer 4 Cure,” unleashes devastating lyrical attacks that live in a paranoid, futuristic sonic world. Intricate and unrelenting, it’s not for the faint of ears but rewarding to those who can embrace its somewhat intimidating sound.
The album opens with “Request Denied,” which, after being introduced by the surreal intonations of William S. Burroughs, lays out three minutes of metallic beats and distorted guitar riffs before El-P finally raps his first verse. It’s indicative of what you can expect in the subsequent songs: confrontational, fluidly stated, introspective and observational. The song tells about his childhood in New York, taking pleasure in destruction and the chaotic rush of being young in the city.
The album maintains that austere aesthetic. Digitized funk beats push hard on your eardrums, lyrics weave effortlessly, tangled but lucid. Rap artists like Das Racist and Serengeti have experimented with impressionistic or absurd stream-of-consciousness lyrics, but though El-P’s cadences are just as rapid, the lines are tightly structured and planned. There is little to fault in the delivery here. El-P has been known from his beginning as one of the most thoughtful and technically gifted rappers working, and he lives up to that reputation here.
Describing the feeling of nighttime in Brooklyn, he employs lines like, “For the tightrope over tank with the piranhas/For its frazzled it’s a moment it’s a promise/To be broke down, to be lowdown, to be honest.” His style of delivery is high-volume and infused with anger, rendering such poetry far more frightening than shown on the page. Throughout the album El-P plays with nihilism, grasping the implications of a world that is both more controlled and oppressive than ever (as in “Drones Over Bklyn”) and more chaotic and lonely (“Request Denied”). Police, government and the military are not to be trusted and will do anything to extract information.
This nihilism, reflected in both the frigid inorganic production and the words of the songs, is never complete, and the album ends with a paean to a woman. If there is anything that prevents “Cancer 4 Cure” from achieving its true potential, it is in the inability of the artist behind it to be vulnerable. Though he finds the connections between his dour visions and the real world, it comes off as monotonous and drab at times. There is some hope. El-P finds meaning and redemption in personal relationships. Though this reach for meaning and harmony comes at the end of an album wracked with tension and fury, this reviewer appreciated the acknowledgment that life can and should be more than what is displayed for the most part. Lies, deceptions, metal and glass are not all that life is. From the perspective of someone stalking down a Brooklyn street, trash strewn over puddles, police helicopters whirring overhead, it might be difficult to see that.