Review Summary: The insomnious El-P creates something that isn't so much a hip hop album as it is a perfectionist snapshot of a morbidly twisted world.
If there was any good time to give up hope for mankind and denounce the Earth as a decaying pile of waste, it would have to be now. As Porcupine Tree
returned with an album criticizing today’s youth, Nine Inch Nails
returned with a concept album about the world’s imminent end, the Smashing Pumpkins
are set to return with something along those lines of quasi-Orwellian pretentiousness, and El-P follows the trend with his long-delayed sophomore LP. Whereas Nas
weeps for Hip Hop’s death, El-P claims that he awaits yours
with hawk-like readiness according to the paranoiac album title. Indeed, the whole thing sounds like an insomnia-induced living nightmare, as El-Producto delivers a dense concept album about a futuristic, destructive society that both criticizes and satirizes today’s world, and tells stories of the catastrophic life itself.
But El-P is no stranger to the game of pessimistic sci-fi storytelling, he debuted ten years earlier with his group Company Flow
, and as both a producer and MC, he helped make the group reach critical acclaim with their album Funcrusher Plus
, hailed for revitalizing the underground hip hop scene. Funcrusher similarly touched on these futuristic dark concepts, but left room to also incorporate more traditional hip hop themes. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead
, much like his first full-length Fantastic Damage
takes it to an entirely new level, El-P turning his beats from darkly atmospheric with a slightly aggressive bite, to all out maniacal with beats as layered and stinging as an onion.
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead
’s clattery collages of percussion sounds more like the base of an industrial album rather than a hip hop one. The songs rarely focus on melodic hooks or full on choruses, relying on the fierce force of drum beats and plethora of buzzing, spacey, tinny noises. El-P’s approach to entice the listener relies on the constant morphing of the beats, adding more and more clashing noises, bringing in samples that barely peep through the mix, and when melodic samples do take the lead, they rarely stick around before morphing into something else. Oddball vocal clips, buried guitar licks, and dusty horn samples are often the victims of the landslide of jagged beats.
While El-P’s adept arranging has helped the album gain its reputation as something unique in the current rap world, the sheer amount of focus on the soundscapes often distracts, and nearly drowns out the small appearances by the likes of Trent Reznor, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala. Not that their contributions are big anyway, with Reznor contributing some backing vocals to Flyentology
, and the Volta duo predictably contributing a few girlish yelps over some wah guitar in the album’s brooding opener. El-P stated that he’s not a fan of albums relying heavily on guest spots, and stays true to that here, letting his confrontational rhymes shape the songs. Yet upon first listen, lyrics are the last thing on one’s mind; I personally didn’t even think I would dig through the album long enough to absorb the lyrics. But when the lyrics do hit, they are how the album lures into detailed listening.
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead
is as much a product of Phillip K. Dick renegade science fiction as it is of social consciousness. El-P fearlessly mixes in elaborate back stories, ultramodern premises with his messages, creating mini hip-hop operas drenched in scathing cynicism and a doomsday streak. While songs like Drive
provide general scopes on the album’s setting, as I’ll Sleep...
progresses the stories focus in on more specific situations. Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)
changes it up dramatically, with El-P and label mate Cage taking the roles of two prison guards who execute prisoners every second morning, and rape the female ones for fun. While this is usually the foundation for some sort of sadistic porn film, the plot takes a surprisingly humanistic turn as El-P loses the hardheaded maverick persona and shows his soft side for the first time, and describes a prisoner that he’s fallen in love with to Cage. Though Cage loves his job of killing (“it’s almost romantic”) and boinking prisoners, he agrees to keep El-P’s secret desire to actually meet the prisoner. The follow-up The Overly Dramatic Truth
directly addresses the prisoner, describing his own cold, jaded nature to the naïve girl. Flyentology
takes the most cryptic view on the album, densely ridiculing religion’s denial of logic with the hook, “There are no intellects in the air/there are no scientists on the way down/just a working example of faith first physics.”
Though El-P is no stranger to high concept rants, here he adds true dimensions and passion into it along with his label’s Definitive Jux’s signature dark, dense beats stepped up a notch. His flow and demeanor has gotten calmer since his Company Flow days, and is less frantic and more on beat than in the past. But with it’s unapologetically brash sound and fast paced nightmarish trips through myriads of apocalyptic imagery makes it a hard record to immediately delve into, especially the couple of shorter songs that intersperse the longer ones. It’s not a casual listening album, but the subtle melodic touches of El-P and his seemingly maniacal attention to detail can make it an addictive, enthralling experience.