El-P / Killer Mike
Cancer 4 Cure / R.A.P. Music
(Fat Possum / Williams Street; 2012)
By Chet Betz | 8 June 2012
El-P is here to treat you, rap fans. You’ve been waiting patiently this year for someone, something, to call dope—to love unconditionally and bump relentlessly. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead dropped way back in 2007 and apparently no one died because El-P must not have been sleeping; on hand we have two nigh masterpieces of immaculate beat-work and it doesn’t sound like a moment of the interim was wasted. And El-P’s covering some important bases; historically, East Coast/NYC/Brooklyn rap and Southern rap are two of the genre’s most essential scenes. Did I say scenes? Establishments. Big K.R.I.T. dropped a pretty decent mixtape reppin’ the latter earlier this year. I haven’t heard anything pretty decent reppin’ the former since whatever half of Watch the Throne (2011) you consider Jay-Z’s. But here we have not one but two not pretty decent but great records, borderline rap classics. Emphasis on borderline, but still. Recognize. Revel. Cherish. Enshrine this shit.
Lord knows, El-P treats rap production as something sacred. By which I mean he subverts it so he can sublimate it, deconstructs it so that it may be exalted. Cancer 4 Cure is 100% Brooklyn rap and 100% something else entirely. It may not be the grimy announcement of relevance that was Funcrusher Plus (1997); or the monolithic statement of The Cold Vein (2001), all broken boom-bap mythos and Blade Runner shit; or the funky, visceral self-immolation of Fantastic Damage (2002). But it is something that I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is not; it is a refinement of all things El-P without loss of freshness, without loss of headiness, without the loss of much of anything except the element of surprise. Early album centerpiece “Drones Over BKLYN” has a bump to it that turns necks to bobble springs well before El-P asserts that “the method is awesome,” and now your head-nodding has become your cosignment. Nonetheless, within the context of these tracks are reaches that pay off; the musical backbone of first single “The Full Retard” is a woodpecker tone embellished with goofy-crunk synth riffs, something that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Dan the Automator or, hell, Fatboy Slim production but made harder, weirder, and with buried revelations like, most obviously, a beat break that’s straight-up cosmic. And this right after an intro track that’s like three minutes of DJ Shadow-era UNKLE before El-P settles the groove for his heavy flow.
Rhyme-wise El-P’s general anger at everything has aged like fine wine, now a subtle cabernet of angst that’s best when it’s simmering for a reduction: be it the utterly casual, nearly indifferent battle-rapping of “Tougher Colder Killer” (on which Killer Mike guests), where the disses merely serve to categorize the track and it’s the beat with its “Who Gon Stop Me”-esque flip providing all the snap; the spurned lover shrug of “The Jig is Up,” like El-P expected this all along and with his hook throws his arms around Woody Allen and Groucho Marx to join the no-members club; the bureaucracy take-down of “Sign Here,” beat cold as ice and sounding less like protest than thunderous jeremiad; and he doesn’t even hold the gun on “For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mums the Word),” just consents to be an accomplice by silence. El-P sounds weary of everything but music, and it is through music that he expresses that weariness with vitality. Artful ghetto and political ennui—it’s hard to come by outside of The Wire. I don’t know if Cancer 4 Cure shows a growth in El-P’s restraint simply because he is too tired to do otherwise, but all the same it’s refreshing to hear “Stay Down” and the eight-minute split of “$4 Vic/FTL (Me and You)” state their cases with simultaneous stylistic gumption and quiet eloquence, a very rare juxtaposition in rap. This closing duo’s closest kin goes back to The Cold Vein, in fact, to “Pigeon” and “Scream Phoenix.” Do you know how great it feels to type that?
Or how great it feels to say that, with El-P’s help, Killer Mike has produced his first unquestionably great Album (though Killer Mike-purist Colin McGowan disagrees)? It seems an unlikely marriage and yet feels like an answer to a prayer I never prayed, hearing Killer Mike joined by a couple of his premier Southern peers Bun B and T.I. (and, fine, Trouble, too) over a legit El-Production on R.A.P. Music opener “Big Beast.” It’s fucking fascinating, hearing for the first time El-P apply that “awesome” method of his to Dirty South tropes, to the beat programming and construction; and it sounds true to the South—the synth hits are chunky, the 808 hat ticks rapidly, there’s a Three Six Mafia/David Banner trill—but the syrup is clarified, the constituents are placed at just barely off-angles, space is created and it is in space that El-P plays. There’s a half-second sample of a female vocal saying “oh” and it makes the thing; “Big Beast” is the best opening track on a rap record in a minute.
With this kind of neo-South soundscaping going on behind him courtesy of a Brooklyn iconoclast, Mike sounds understandably invigorated and inspired. Strangely enough, too, he sounds the closest he’s ever been to the heart of his potential. R.A.P. Music could be the fully modern Dungeon Family record or fully dope post-OutKast tangent that wouldn’t really exist except for this, this collaboration with a white guy from the NYC. El-P does his best Organized Noize impersonation on “Southern Fried” while Killer Mike sounds almost exactly like Big Boi for the first couple verses and even invokes “So Fresh, So Clean” on the hook. It’s only as the album progresses that more and more of El-P bleeds through—but Killer Mike and the South are never subsumed. I also imagine that El-P is probably one of the only producers that Killer Mike could find to join him for the four minutes of “Reagan,” a track that proves two things: 1) El-P can do a three-stage beat build with the best of them, and 2) there is still one rapper that hates Ronald Reagan. It’s cute.
It probably wasn’t the best idea, pacing wise, to pair “Reagan” in the album’s mid-section with “Don’t Die,” another dark, angry four-minute track that instead of a build opts for constant flips, allowing it to squeeze as many as cool sounds in as possible (including a synth bass line that reminds of Grimes’ “Genesis”). Yet R.A.P. Music may just have been gearing up for an incredible closing stretch of tracks, where the highlights come fast and furious as Killer Mike seizes the opportunity to paint in elevated archetypes and the only low-light is an Emily Panic hook that makes me care even less about Emily Panic than I did before I knew she existed, which was right before I heard her hook. But, I mean, highlights: “Ghetto Gospel” is manic meditation, Killer Mike rifling through references to George Jung and Huey P. Newton in mining the psychology of the disenfranchised while El-P displays his rhythmic invention, using a Tricky-esque beat stutter for transition purposes and syncopated hand claps on the hook, creating amidst gauzy organ keyboards the air for Mike to let himself breathe and sparely intone, “Oh Lord…Jesus…glory.” On “Butane (Champion’s Anthem)” the beat is thick ‘n crunchy, earning the track’s subtitle and so Mike’s compelled to shout-out El-P’s artistic ancestry by way of Cuban Linx, at which point El-P can’t resist getting in on it with a verse himself. By this time the cutting-edge Southern traditionalism of “Big Beast” and “Southern Fried,” the speed-beat rap of “Go!” and the funk guitar clip and storytelling of “JoJo’s Chillin’”…they all start to feel like distant memories, El-P’s sonic signature beginning to assert itself in full.
Killer Mike responds not with disconnect but by delivering his most impassioned performances: “Willie Burke Sherwood” is rap self-portraiture of the highest order, the vernacular simple but driven and dense, so that when Killer Mike asserts that he’s “addicted to literature” you think it must have been the Truman Capote or Cormac McCarthy type. Finally, the title track is Mike’s “B.I.B.L.E,” the kind of comparison that could probably only have happened because he’s working with an NYC producer. It’s a closing statement that soars on its music and its feeling, that preaches a philosophy self-contained, and gives evidence that rap can still make acronyms fly. And El-P delivers one of the most beautiful beat breaks I’ve ever heard.
Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to: stellar beats and thought-out rhymes. Two complete records from two guys near or at the top of their respective games. Hear, as if for the first time, a blood mix of two of rap’s best establishments and discover what can happen when scene and/or sub-genre distinctions cease to matter. El-P’s always been ahead of the curve but Cancer 4 Cure isn’t valuable for its prescience so much as its currency of the now and the way it unites rap head nostalgia for the future beats of the past with the beats of the present, Jaime Meline’s words merely an avatar for the feelings of the fans who grew up listening to his shit, who are now 30-somethings and care about a lot of the same things that Jaime cares about but mostly, truly, just care about the music—the art of the thing. Likewise, R.A.P. Music is the sound of the curve catching up to El-P and El-P embracing it, while Killer Mike still cares intensely about a lot of things that no one else really cares about anymore (like Ronald Reagan) but finds a way to make that shit relatable at the same time that he’s hitting a ton of the pleasure points of us rap fans who also grew up on UGK, Dungeon Fam, OutKast, etc. Here are the North and South sides and the impersonal and personal sides of one aesthetically awesome coin. And that makes for two of the best records you’ll hear this year. Sorry, West Coast.