Cancer For Cure (Fat Possum, 2012)
originally published at Dusted Magazine
The notion that El-P is the poet laureate of our hellish robo-dystopian future is a conclusion so foregone, by this point, that rap critic/Twitter crank Andrew Nosnitsky challenged the rest of us last week to “review the new el-p record without mentioning robots or dystopia.” (Challenge hereby flouted.) As with most notions about El-P, this one feels like something that we’ve been taking for granted for a long time, but that turns out upon resumed inspection to hold up pretty well. For the sake of making ourselves useful, though, let’s address a couple of points about how Cancer For Cure, his third solo rap album, is a little more complex than that notion.
First of all, to peg El-P as a poet is to misprioritize his talents. He’s a spectacular hip-hop producer, with a knack for configuring the sounds of the idiom in a way that nobody has thought to try yet – for that alone his albums tend to sound like the future – and his swagger, such as it is, is pitch-perfect for the scornful lone-wolf character he likes to play. His way with words, though, is blunt and functional, versatile but seldom telegraphing the same joy of experimentation his beats do. On Cancer, he often seems more concerned with the attitude behind his delivery than with what he’s saying, to the point that a few of his one-liners here are repurposed husks of their former selves (“I’d sooner wash my dick in acid than ask what you think,” for instance, has none of the charm or shock value of “Sign to Rawkus? I’d rather be mouthfucked by Nazis unconscious”).
But then El-P’s primary appeal has always been in the attitude, in the self-assured way he slings his paranoid defiance and contempt for authority and sloganmongering gallows-humor. (Of the various quotables from Cancer For Cure, the best might be “Your safety word is yes. Try it.”) His protagonist, whom we meet by turns as a soldier, a junkie, an interrogator, an outlaw, etc., is a man trying to make it through his time by patching together a code of ethics for a post-modern police state; in a weird way, “For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mums the Word),” whose refrain is simply “if you kill him I won’t tell,” feels like the album’s moral center.
And the underlying appeal of Cancer For Cure is that man’s unsettling magnetism, how real and plausible he seems beneath the occasional references to flying cars and wrist-chip media players. The album lets out all the voices running through that man’s head while he builds a lean-to from bits and pieces of subverted or discarded culture, looking you over and wondering whether to let you inside. It hits closer to home than you think it should because, of course, the lean-to is this album, and you are both the second-person character happening by in the story and yourself as a listener with opinions and expectations about what a hip-hop album sounds like.
Which brings us around at last to the part about the future. It’s easy to take El-P’s stock in trade as futurism because the canon it continually references, sonically and symbolically, genuinely is a dystopian one. But then remember that Blade Runner takes place seven and a half years from right now; consider that, but for some spelling differences, “Drones Over BKLYN” could be the title of an article in this week’s New Yorker. It sounds obvious to say it – because this is a man whose avatar always seems to have lived through our bad times before they happen – but the most disarming thing El-P’s got going for him is his ability to sound like he’s broadcasting from an impossible future even while he’s standing right next to you in the present.back