Classic hip-hop sounds a lot different after you've filtered it through 1984, through the War in Iraq, through the Patriot Act.
Walking down the street, you run into a guy you sort of know and strike up a conversation, immediately noticing and trying to ignore the blood stains on his shoes. You notice his cigar, too: the noxious smell from it that suggests something more potent. You ask him "What's up?" and regret it right away. "The whole design got me mind cryin'," he starts, beginning a litany of pain. A half-sensical, half-understandable tale of walking between bullets, of feeling like a rat trapped in the maze of a government experiment. Of feeling angry, confused, worthless. "I'm trash / Glad you asked," he finishes with a laugh.
That's the story, in the form of a hard, urgent, seven-minute hip-hop track called "Tasmanian Pain Coaster", that El-P chooses to kick off his paranoid epic I'll Sleep When You're Dead. And it's only the beginning. In El-P's world everyone is walking wounded like the character in the first track. There's angry young men staying up all night, obsessing over conspiracy theories. There's the prison warden who entertains dreams of saving, instead of executing, his prisoner, but can't convince himself to break with the system. There's the man who wants to tell his lover that she doesn't know his cold dead heart, she doesn't know he'll just screw her over and flee; the man on the crashing plane praying to God just in case he exists; the man at a party, living it up but feeling inside that he can see the emptiness in everyone's soul, including his own.
"Why should I be sober / When God is so clearly dusted out of his mind?", El-P asks in "Smithereens (Stop Cryin)", and it's a question lurking in the minds of all his songs' protagonists. This is an apocalyptic sci-fi world in step with Philip K. Dick and George Orwell's 1984. In other words, it's today: the era of Guantanamo, genocide, phone-tapping, and the War on Terror™. That's made clear in moments. Witness "Dear Sirs", where a list of unlikely events ("if" statements) is followed with the punchline to the "if": "Me fighting in your war is still / By a large margin / The least likely thing that will ever fucking happen ever". But that connection doesn't have to be made too literally -- by mentioning Bush by name, for example, which he does just once -- because a societal portrait as full as El-P's is drawn vividly enough to make its relation to our reality crystal-clear. It's tempting to say he's one of our most potent sci-fi authors for what his fictions have to say about our America. But rarely is he rhyming about the future at all. This is diary, a cataloging of the present... albeit through the eyes of someone tortured by the hardest parts of day-to-day life: haunted by the ghosts of the abused, molested, and murdered; inflamed with anger by every abuse of power or act of hypocrisy.
The post-apocalyptic, Big-Brother state of today isn't new to El-P's music. It was the foundation of much of Company Flow's classic Funcrusher Plus, and was the essence of his solo classic Fantastic Damage. But he's getting more articulate about this vision with each album; his lyrics on I'll Sleep When You're Dead are even more visceral, detailed, and overwhelming than before. And once again, the kicker is that, for all the precision and poetry of his lyrics, El-P's dark vision of the world is communicated as completely through the music itself. An instrumental version of this album will be as powerful as the album itself. In some ways, it'll be more powerful; as with the instrumental versions of Fantastic Damage and Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein (musically El-P's other masterpiece of paranoia), stripping away the vocals will help to hear the details. And every surface of I'll Sleep When You're Dead is filled with details, more so than with anything El-P has created before.
The genius of I'll Sleep When You're Dead -- and the reason it deserves to be considered as a progressive step in El-P's journey as an artist -- is that the tracks are just as dense and complex as on his other albums, but in a new, fresh way. Fantastic Damage and The Cold Vein were described as "claustrophobic" countless times, and with good reason. The music was larger-than-life in its bleakness, so much so that as a listener I often felt the urge to escape, even while I was riveted. Perhaps El-P's diversion into jazz since then, with his High Water Mark album, is responsible; in any case, this is his most diverse album yet, but at the same time the disparate styles are pulled together seamlessly into a sound that's instantly recognizable as his. It other words, it sounds like El-P, but with an updated look: speaking a slightly different language, relying on recently perfected new tricks.
It'd take an extreme amount of effort and time to capture on paper how many surprising sounds coexist within even one of these tracks. Snippets of jazz, rock, and funk have been smashed together into one entity. Bass parts get loud unexpectedly, and then disappear. The drums kick constantly, with the overwhelming boom-bap of classic hip-hop. And for all its innovation, classic hip-hop is exactly what this is. For all the rollercoaster turns of the music, the hooks stay with you, feel more like hooks than you expect. And El-P's rhymes are here, more so than ever, within the storytelling tradition of so many great (golden age, if you will) MCs. The way he brings you so completely within the frame of his dark, complicated story brings to mind so many classics at once. I think of "The Message": "Keep my hand on my gun, cause they got me on the run". Of "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos": "Bruised, battered, and scarred but hard". Of Kool G. Rap, Slick Rick, KRS-One. El-P's in that tradition, the Criminal Minded tradition of vivid street tales over hardcore beats. And yet his beats are updated for the new millennium: schizophrenic, busy, pained, and mad as they come.
I'll Sleep When You're Dead uses guests from outside hip-hop (The Mars Volta, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Cat Power's Chan Marshall) and within it (labelmates Aesop Rock, Mr Lif, Cage, Camu Tao, Rob Sonic), yet everything has been processed so thoroughly through El-P's sensibility that it feels like the work of one man. One man with the words to express the damaged and tortured feelings inside us, inside America, but also one man with an amazing ability for the way sounds can tortured, the way strains of music can be twisted into one.