It’s been a long five years since El-P‘s last album, so the arrival of Cancer 4 Cure is definitely welcome, though it’s far from a welcoming collection of music. Not that you’d expect anything different from one of hip-hop’s foremost purveyors of dystopian paranoia.
His last album featured a guest appearance from Trent Reznor, and Cancer 4 Cure’s production isn’t far away from that industrial Nine Inch Nails sound, especially on twitchy instrumental intro Request Denied. It’s an excellent taster for what’s to come.
References to El-P’s paranoid lyrics are almost cliched now, but it’s hard not to use that word to describe tracks like For My Upstairs Neighbour, which slows the pace of his rapping to a more spoken-word style, akin to The Streets. Quite what’s going on with the guy who lives above him isn’t explained, but safe to say it makes Tom Waits‘ What’s He Building seem like The ‘burbs.
Drones Over BKLYN barely needs explaining of course, given El-P’s love of using sci-fi imagery and references to illustrate his real-world themes and issues. Explosive guest appearances from Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire and Killer Mike on Oh Hail No and Tougher Colder Killer up the ante, with the latter being amongst the most abrasive of the tracks.
And that’s saying something. The likes of Sleigh Bells and Skrillex may be using some of the same tricks as El-P and may be selling more copies than him, but the density and intensity of his production here means that he’s operating on a completely different level to both of them. Just listen to True Story and see how it works.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Cancer 4 Cure may have been influenced by the death of his friend Camu Tao (to whom it’s dedicated at the end) but El-P has painted it as being about finding a way out of the darkness as much as the darkness itself: “I think the record is ultimately about not giving into it.”
And so the guest appearances from Paul Banks of Interpol and Nick Diamonds offer some respite from the brutal intensity. The former appears on Works Every Time, which not only has his singing, but also a reference to a gag from Airplane and ends with a rare glimpse of optimism in the lyrics. Shiny Happy People it ain’t, but still, ‘It’s like a fresh start on a new day’ has some hope in it.
Even that track is still a bruising encounter and there’s no doubt that this isn’t the soundtrack to a happy world. What it is though is another excellent release from an artist who never lets you down. Cancer 4 Cure rarely sounds triumphant, but that doesn’t stop it being a triumph.