El-P’s Cancer For Cure is an intimidating fortress of an album, but it’s not impenetrable. In the five years since the Brooklyn rapper released his last album, 2007’s hulking, Bush-induced paranoia opus I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, the independent hip-hop landscape that El-P helped define with his work as one half of Company Flow and the founder of the now defunct Definitive Jux label has undergone countless changes. The distinctions between independent rap and major label hip-hop have been blurred or completely obliterated depending on who you ask, leaving many formerly prominent artists lost and adrift, but at 37, El-P is still standing strong and defiant, like Snake Plissken in a baseball cap. However, unlike John Carpenter’s stoic hero, El-P has a lot to say, and he will keep yelling at you until you turn your speakers off.
With its squelching synths, hammering drums, burping sound effects and brooding choruses, Cancer For Cure can occasionally sound like Trent Reznor re-imagined I Am Legend as a mini hip-hopera. Listening to the murky opener, “Request Denied,” with its propulsive two-minute opening synth and organ squalls, it’s easy to understand why the album took so many years to finish–these songs sound like a lot of work. There’s a density and chaos to El-P’s production techniques that can be alienating to even his most ardent fans; songs don’t so much start as much as they grind themselves into being then explode in bursts of defiance and rage. Despite the brainy, composer-like attention to detail and El-P’s complicated lyrics, this is still music imbued with a bracing sense of physicality. It’s great stomping music.
The album opens up with the closest thing it has to bangers: all creaking synths, clanking 808s, Die Hard explosions and laser blasts. “The Full Retard” finds El-P worrying about robots, talking about lions and threatening to kick you in the balls. On “Work Every Time” he casts himself as weary intergalactic traveler with a bone to pick with pretty much everyone and everything, including reality itself. “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue/If I exist right now I damn sure can’t provide you proof,” he raps over a swirling instrumental that ends with horns that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Neutral Milk Hotel record. The intensity only increases on the paranoia anti-anthem “Drones Over BKLYN.” When Danny Brown and Mr. Muthafuckin’ Exquire show up on “Oh Hail No” it’s almost a relief to know that El-P has some friends to hang out with or at least a few fellow soldiers in his war on everything.
After a welcome appearance from El-P’s recent collaborator Killer Mike on “Tougher Colder Killer,” the album takes a turn inward, growing more melancholy and frustrated as it progresses. “The Jig Is Up” is the emotional centerpiece of the album, a portrait of self-hatred and self-destruction so potent it feels like a Eugene O’Neill play staged in a nuclear fall-out shelter; call it Long Day’s Journey Into Night Of The Living Dead. Built around a chorus that finds El repeating the Marx Brothers maxim about not wanting to be in any club that would have you as a member, the verses are a masterclass in using telling details and startling specificity to craft a narrative. Take this line for example: “I know a thing or two about a thing or two/One of them is I know men like me don’t ever get no second chance/Not for the kind of man who showed up at death’s door and ding-dong dashed so much he wore a hole out on the welcome mat.”
Death hangs over the album. Though the record is dedicated to rapper/singer Camu Tao, El-P’s friend and frequent collaborator who died of lung cancer in 2008, it often feels as though the death El-P is really fixated on is his own. It’s the one terror that can’t be out-blustered, out-smarted or out-produced. On the final track, synth blow-out epic “$4 Vic/FTL (Me And You),” he mentions Tao by name and stares down the abyss, calling out death with the same bristling frankness that he brings to tossed-off Twitter jokes and sly sci-fi allusions. “I can no longer contain what’s under my disguise,” he says. El-P simply cannot be contained, not by himself and not even by his own album.