I'll Sleep When You're Dead

(Def Jux; 2006)

By Clayton Purdom | 23 March 2007

The most surprising thing about El-P’s second record is that it surprises at all — that, five years after barreling out the gate with one of the most singular sounds in hip-hop, an assaulting thrush of blips and stabs, and after countless rehashes, b-sides, offshoots, and lukewarm guest production, El-P has made another record with the same techniques that still manages to sound like the future. And no, I’m not just using that f-word because of El-P’s sci-fi fixation. I use it because when Hell Hath No Fury (2006) dropped it instantly made every rap record in existence sound dated and callow, and I’m not alone in feeling some reluctance returning to the world of, well, other rap records. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is the first rap record relevant to a post-“Ride Around Shinin’” world (sorry), and a fresh triumph for El-P, a figure many (I) had abandoned for dead after half a decade of borderline senility.

This is, I think, a better record than Fantastic Damage (2002), because better raps and better beats and realer sadness and smarter fun necessarily equals a better record…right? Well, by my math, yes, but there are those who would canonize Mr. Producto’s first effort for the sheer physical dent it left in eardrums. It was a nasty and brutish affair, but also excruciatingly long, a record to admire from afar, and only then on theoretical terms. Just listen to that thing! Or, like me, don’t: The Cold Vein (2000) is a darker, smoother, smarter alternative, poetically brooding where Fan Dam only boils wildly. Indeed, drop Vein in among Fury’s peers—The Blueprint (2001), Supreme Clientele (2000) and Beauty and the Beat (2005) — and you’ve got a neat little top five of the decade, staring expectantly at the next few years, with Fan Dam a sometimes runner-up. How could El-P hope to compete against himself? The answer is so obvious it smacks against the critic’s forehead, tweaks a nipple, chuckles: pare shit down. Where Fan Dam assured its legacy through sheer density, piling beats on top of one another haphazardly and layering hype tracks laced with punchlines, subtexts, and asides, Sleep finds El-P focusing his fury into individual crescendos, particularly during the record’s sterling second half.

After the unfortunately named “Tasmanian Pain Coaster,” which unfortunately features the Mars Volta, the record settles into a stretch that sounds suspiciously like a pretty good El-P record — the phased horn blast funk of “Up All Night,” the ninety-second Michael Mann moodiness of “Dear Sirs,” Aesop Rock shouting above the beeping, sputtering, gyrating din of “Run the Numbers.” But this is not a pretty good El-P record, it is a pretty great one, and despite its misfortunes, “Tasmanian Pain Coaster” signals that something new is going on here, that the bullshit dialogue that opens it (“Really really, man / What’s the deal, good to see you,”) bleeding slowly into larger settings, first horns rising wearily, then an industrial beat settling in, then a cyclical keyline, and then, finally, Rodriguez and Bixler-Zavala channeling their talent appropriately for the first time in years, is a dramatic, human climax to the industrial jihad of the previous six minutes.

The El-P of yore would’ve done all of this in a third of the time, and without any room to breathe the samples would’ve suffocated, leaving the listener winded and behind. “Tasmanian Pain Coaster” is El-P making music with the listener, as much as his own legacy, in mind; from “Habeas Corpses” (geez) on, this is the template El-P follows. The clean dystopian storytelling of “Corpses” (“I’m the first to touch her without gloves on / She’s the first to kiss me without crying”) is built around the rise and fall of the beat, shifting on phased-out fades and letting cold gunshots create the effect that a screen’s worth of ProTool effects would’ve previously. The record’s second half eschews the dizzying overload we expect and offers a gaggle of standout moments. “Flyentology” rallies around a real chorus, “Poisenville Kids No Wins” relishes in vaudevillian despair, and then there’s the clean, lithe funk of “No Kings,” a song which kills Kanye’s lift on the “Back Like That” remix for Best Anchorman Reference in a Rap Song.

With the space and concentration afforded to us by these beats, El-P’s mic skills come into clearer focus, and they are as nakedly effective as ever, if less stultifyingly “impressive.” He is an emcee of speedy, venomous wit, and what he lacks as a lyricist he makes up for as a rapper, by the blunt way he just says this shit, sticking by it defiantly: “Every ache is a rainbow,” or “I’m not depressed, man, I’m just a fucking New Yorker.” One gets the feeling, though, that El-P is both keenly aware and wholly unconcerned with these flaws in his form, and that, dominating his records as he does, easily subjugating a slew of heavyweight guests, his focus is simply on making the best El-P record possible. He realizes that El-P records don’t sound like anything else, and on this record’s back half he comes closer than ever to clarifying that vision. Form meets function and flaw matches triumph in album centerpiece “The Overly Dramatic Truth,” the type of heartbreaking masterwork that only El-P could’ve produced. The title is both stupid and correct, a naked and melodramatic orgy of self-loathing (“You think I’m a genius / I know I’m a whore … I will pull your hair back / Fuck you on the floor / Pour myself into the act / Pour myself, ooh, I’m bad”), all of this carried by the iridescent misery of the beat. El-P must’ve bawled for a month while producing this thing, this gorgeous monstrosity, this perverting and perverted triumph. The track vaults past “Stepfather Factory” as the best self-contained song El-P’s ever made, hurtling above all the overreaching High Waters and half-assed beatwork that have threatened to mar the man’s legacy these past five years. Well, legacy assured and I’ll be damned; let’s just get a new Can Ox record out and see what happens.