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El-P - I'll Sleep When You're Dead

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Artist: El-P

Album: I'll Sleep When You're Dead

Label: Def Jux

Review date: Mar. 22, 2007


As El-P has become an entrenched presence in hip hop and pop more generally, it has likewise become harder for listeners to defend him as an underground or outsider artist. He is, rather, a consummate inside player ó or at least an insider in the ítweener genre that is ďindieĒ hip hop, a categorical hull stretching to include those rappers and producers not quite afloat on the tides of mainstream culture, but also unmoored from the harbors of obscurity. So the story goes for many an artist who came of age in the pasture that was the 1990s' underground hip-hop scene. But the ramifications of popular exposure for El-P are weightier than for most of his peers. This is because being an outsider was central to El-Pís original appeal. From Company Flowís first recordings, El-P staked his claim in terms of difference and negation. He was independent, frumpy, uninterested in celebrity, and white ó simply put, what hip hop was not. Today, that distinction is no longer as clear, and Iíll Sleep When Youíre Dead, El-Pís newest album, represents the futility of continuing to draw this kind of line for him anymore.

At this point, it is probably fair to say that Company Flowís first record, Funcrusher Plus, is a bona fide classic, an album that was not a symptom of its era, but a transcendence of it. When Funcrusher was released in the immediate aftermath of the Tupac-Biggie beefing, Company Flow was obviously set apart, even alien from, the hip hop of the time. Company Flowís hybrid visions of urban paranoia and science fiction dystopia were a break from the realism which most hip-hop acts strived to capture. More fundamentally, though, what made the group a watershed moment was its seeming inversion of hip hopís form ó specifically, the groupís use of words to rhythmically ground its songs, and the employment of minimal beats as offhanded murmurings, as if it were the beatís purpose to stay on-rhyme rather than the rhymeís purpose to stay on-beat. Helmed by a Phillip K. Dick-quoting redhead, Company Flow instilled hip hop with a different dialect and introduced a new take on what hip hop could be and express.

Flash forward 10 years, through the dissolution of Company Flow and following the release of two El-P solo albums. Today, El-P is neither an outlier nor a minor act. He is, instead, another constellation in popís universe, clearly mapped and easily identifiable. The clipped hyper-speak that has been a hallmark of El-Pís work is currently neither distinct nor solely the province of Def Jux, El-Pís basis of operations. Rather, the hastiness with which El-P raps is similarly located in commercial southern hip hop and in British grime, two genres that resonate infinitely more broadly than they did a decade ago. Although one should probably abstain from diagnosing some causal link between El-P and, say, the spoken delivery heralded through car speakers in Macon, Georgia, it is undeniable that the average listenerís palette has become more tolerant of El-Pís aggressive and wordy styling, both because of El-Pís own increasing popularity and the related rise of other fast-speaking hip-hop acts.

A more direct reason for El-Pís integration into the pop cabal, however, is that in the period of time between Funcrusher and Iíll Sleep, El-P has become a significant force as a producer, providing original songs and remixes for a panoply of rappers and indie acts, including the likes of TV on the Radio, Beck and Hot Hot Heat, none of whom are exactly beyond the pale of contemporary pop. And pop has returned the favor on Iíll Sleep, as Cat Power, Mars Volta, and Trent Reznor lend their hands at different points on the album. In total, then, it is hard to take seriously any notion that El-P remains ďindependent as fuck,Ē the war cry of his Company Flow days, if independence means something more than the corporate status of his record label. El-P is thoroughly integrated in American hip hop and, more than ever, in American pop music. There is little otherness in El-Pís work anymore ó or, at least, there is no longer the preponderance of otherness that made his first works so jarring and inventive.

All of this is not to say that musically Iíll Sleep is somehow inferior to any of El-Pís earlier work. It is to only argue that continuing to extol El-P for some sort of aesthetic purity or originality is misplaced, and probably indicates an idolatry of what El-P did for hip hop years before rather than genuine appreciation of what he is doing now. Nor does El-P seem to want to forge the same path he blazed before. Rather, by inviting a host of guest performers from diverse genres and by experimenting more with melody and orchestration than in previous solo releases (with the exception of High Water, a jazz project that was a part of pianist Matthew Shippís Blue Series), El-P seems to be openly embracing his move away from hip hopís periphery. This open embrace is fitting, as El-Pís work on Iíll Sleep is, on the whole, laudable.

There are elements of El-Pís previous work that remain constant on Iíll Sleep ó the cadence remains unchanged, and the juxtaposition of speedy lyrics to slow or mid-tempo beats continues unabated. It is in the spaces between words and drums, and in the general structures of the songs, however, that El-P most clearly exhibits growth. And it is these points on the album that make Iíll Sleep an intriguing release. Despite its morbid title, this is El-Pís most melodic album. Whereas on previous releases, El-Pís sense of melody was either non-existent or limited to the bleating of industrial machinery, on Iíll Sleep, El-P has broadened his sound to include hooks. Granted, none of these hooks are organic ó as always for El-P, technology broods near and always ó but they are substantial, grander than the three-note musings that tended to plod about Funcrusher Plus and Fantastic Damage.

But it is the second feature, the introduction of structure that is more than simply drums and voice ó that is, the move beyond the standard hip hop verse-chorus-verse formula ó that truly stands out. On ďThe Overly Dramatic Truth,Ē for example, El-P uses an increasing and decreasing number of layers to create an approximation of ascent and descent. The albumís closer, ďPoisonville Kids No Wins/Reprise (This Must Be Our Time)Ē operates somewhat similarly, by layering a multitude of samples to provide texture. The song is worth noting for a second reason, however: As it reaches its conclusion, El-P the rapper drops out of the picture and, in his place, allows the beat to play on, rich and ominous. For a man who loves to talk so much, his trust of electronically produced melody, a norm in our contemporary world of popular music, is a welcoming risk of sameness from someone who for so long rigidly and ardently defended difference.

By Ben Yaster

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