review by Todd E. Jones
Theme music for the apocalypse has been provided by El-P. If “apocalyptic hip-hop” was not a term I just created for this article, El-P would be the genre’s father. Originally signed to Rawkus Records with the independent group Company Flow, El-P has risen to mythical heights in the world of underground / independent hip-hop. He is a white emcee/producer from New York who cannot conveniently fit under only one label. He is not a backpack rapper. He is not a religious zealot. He is not a gimmicky wannabe who is exploiting the culture. Simply, El-P is his complicated self. Founder of the now legendary independent record label, Definitive Jux, El Producto has earned his much deserved respect. As a label founder, El-P used Definitive Jux as a vehicle to release dense and high quality albums by C Rayz Walz, Cannibal Ox, The Perceptionists, Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, and others. His cacophonic production style is gloriously unique and dramatically powerful. His drums have a juggernaut force and his melodies are lush soundscapes. He has contributed production for albums like “The Cold Vein” by Cannibal Ox, “Black Dialogue” by The Perceptionists, “I Phantom” and “Mo’ Mega” by Mr. Lif, and “Year Of The Beast” by C Rayz Walz. From start to finish, El-P’s “Fantastic Damage” was his challenging and thought-provoking debut solo album. Standout cuts included “Blood”, “Deep Space 9MM”, and “Fantastic Damage.” A true hip-hop producer, El-P also released varied instrumental albums. Released on Thirsty Ear Records, “High Water” showcased his talents by capturing his production skills with jazz band. Released on Definitive Jux, “Collecting The Kid” was a refreshing compilation of tracks from various projects El-P had been working on. “Constellation (Remix)” (featuring Stephanie Vezina) and “Oxycontin” (featuring Camu Tao) were exceptional tracks. Fans were yearning for El-P’s next complete solo album. When people thought El-P could not top “Fantastic Damage”, they were amazed when El-P’s sophomore album surpassed his previous work. “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” is a glorious, intelligent, and powerful album. While the “Fantastic Damage” LP was described as somewhat difficult listening, “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” is exceptionally constructed, instantly entertaining, and intellectually memorable. Hip-hop will never experience another album like “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead”.
“I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” contains multiple tracks of epic proportions. The opening cut, “Tasmanian Pan Coaster” possesses a powerful crescendo and thick bouncing rhythms. El-P’s chorus is a shocking epiphany, “â€¦This is the sound of what you don’t know killing you / This is the sound of what you don’t believe still true / This is that sound of what you don’t want still in you / TPC motherf*cker / Cop a feel or twoâ€¦” The song features Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala of The Mars Volta. Mr. Dibbs also contributes turntable cutting to the track. During the song’s conclusion, the use of a distorted guitar intertwined with an operatic vocal sample creates a devastating cinematic sound. “Flyentology” features Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails on vocals. Even people who are sick of Trent Reznor will probably appreciate the song. El-P uses Reznor’s vocals in a very intelligent way. He is careful not to overuse Reznor too. Since the song does not clash with the other tracks, the album’s flow is maintained. The animated music video for “Flyentology” gives the song a complete new dimension while telling a creative and fantastic story. El-P’s view on religion and spirituality is extremely refreshing. “â€¦There are atheists in the foxholes / There is no intellect in the air / There are no scientists on the way down / Just a working example of faith verses physicsâ€¦” His creativity leaves much to interpretation. The epic conclusion of the album is “Poisonville Kids No Wins”. El-P’s soft spoken, heartfelt delivery is enhanced by the song’s structure. The beat stops and restarts throughout the track, gaining more momentum and power every time. The massively hypnotic chorus is a thick, melodic beat crescendo. Chan Marshall of Cat Power adds poignantly ethereal vocals during the song’s finale, “â€¦Never, ever, ever gonna get that way again…” Cinematically epic, these songs bring hip-hop to creative heights.
The album also includes tracks that are shorter in length but not quality. “Drive” is possibly the most instantly appealing song on the album. For the chorus, a sped-up vocal sample is used before each line. El-P’s verses are wonderfully frustrating. El-P raps, “â€¦I’m not a depressed man / I’m just a f*cking New Yorker / Who knows that sitting in traffic with these bastards is tortureâ€¦” El-P’s “Drive” is proof that he can create a somewhat catchy yet clever solo track that has the potential to be a single. “Up All Night” is a bouncy, intelligent track with thick, electronic melodies and swirling drum rhythms. In the hook, El-P states that he is not a person to be taken advantage of, “â€¦I see you all regardless / I know what lies are like / I might have been born yesterday, sir / But I stayed up all night…” Another bounce-driven track with a memorable chorus is “Smithereens (Stop Cryin)”. El-P’s quick double-time flow adds a cool diversity to the album. He even adds melody to his hook. “No Kings” is a tight cut which features a deep-voiced Tame-One (formerly of Artifacts). “Run The Numbers” (featuring Aesop Rock) is a catchy track which will have you shouting “Find those detonators!” El-P’s melodic repetition of “Na-na-na-na-na-na-na” makes the song catchy, fun, yet still intelligent. Another powerful track, “The Overly Dramatic Truth” is sexually harsh and insanely aggressive.
Only a handful of songs do not have the same intensity or replay value as the other tracks on the album. “Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)” is an overdone track with the repeated hook: “I found love on a prison ship.” Cage contributes vocals to the track. Although Cage and El-P work well together, the album’s other songs are more satisfying. The only other somewhat filler track is the short and angry “Dear Sirs”. To call these tracks filler is somewhat unfair because the depth and meaning of each song does shine with creativity.
“I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” displays a major maturation in El-P. His production talents have become extremely unique, but massively emotional. As an emcee, he has begun to master his flow and delivery as well as his cadence. Although “Fantastic Damage” was a solid album, “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” is incredibly tighter and more accessible. The album’s accessibility never forsakes the usual complicated beauty of his music. While the album may also be considered a challenging listen compared to most hip-hop CDs, “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” is beautifully challenging and executed with an intellectual precision. Although the album may go over people’s heads, intelligent and open-minded music lovers should appreciate the record’s multiple layers of creativity. Simply, “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” by El-P is a complicated modern hip-hop classic.