El-P is someone that I've been aware of for a long time, but have never really got into. I've been a fan of his production on occasion: “The Cold Vein” by Cannibal Ox was a particular favourite, but I wasn't really enticed to seek out his solo efforts. I'd listened to bits and pieces, but they never really grabbed me, I couldn't really get into his voice and didn't feel like it was the best match for the beats he made. I also felt like the general perception of him was that he was the equivalent of indie rock in the rap world or the champion of 'backpacker hip-hop'. As I've made an effort to listen to his older work, I've realised that this opinion didn't really have much basis.
Cancer For Cure wasn't on my radar at all until I heard “The Full Retard”, which seemed like a total change in style from his previous work. No matter what my feelings were about him previously, it felt as though this time the music was compelling enough to get past the vocals. It's difficult to understand just how much hype the record got off the back of one track. By far my favourite quote describing it was on a forum I frequent: "It's like a nuclear bomb went off in 1988 and Rick Rubin has been left with a sampler in a post-apocalyptic wasteland." After that much build-up, it started to feel inevitable that there would be some disappointment in the album as a whole.
Those who heard it early on didn't seem blown away by it, and Killer Mike's “R.A.P. Music” was generally being talked about as the better album featuring El-P's production. I tried to keep my expectations unbiased, but it was definitely difficult to stay positive before I could get my hands on it. My first thought was that if you were expecting every song to be like “The Full Retard”, then you'd be disappointed. I can't say that there are any other tracks on the album with a similar bombastic old-school electronic feel. That's not to say that there aren't other powerful tracks though: if anything, it can be even more relentless than Killer Mike's album. It pulls in a lot of influences, and towards the end I'm not even sure it still sounds like hip-hop.
It took me a while to get into it though, and to begin with I was still ready to blame it on El-P's voice. It sometimes doesn't feel like he has enough range of tone to avoid becoming repetitive. On some songs, it fits perfectly and they might all work in isolation, but I just found myself getting overloaded with it after a while. When guest rappers show up on a few tracks, it feels like they add some much-needed variety and the chance to take a breath from El-P's relentless assault. I guess that others may have liked his vocal style from the start, but for me I think I just needed time to get used to it.
Other reviews of his work sometimes suggest that he's not the best rapper in the world, but I think that's not entirely true. Technically, some of what he does is very impressive and he's definitely extremely creative, but I feel that on first listen it can be difficult to engage with his lyrics. To me, it seems that they are almost never straightforward and that can make it hard to make that personal connection to them straight away. If I were to put my amateur rap psychologist hat on, it almost feels like a defence mechanism against exposing his personal issues directly.
That's not to say that this is an emotionless album, it can just take time to get to grips with it. After a week or so, more songs began to grow on me – “The Jig is Up” is becoming one of my favourites and that question of "just why is my partner with me?" is surely quite a universal one. “Tougher Colder Killer” is probably my favourite overall, not just because it features the talents of Killer Mike: the introduction to it, written from the viewpoint of a soldier who has just killed an enemy may be an imaginary scenario, but it is instantly understandable and relatable.
So while “The Full Retard” probably still stands out as the best track on the album, due to its brash, unconstrained insanity, there is clearly a lot to like here. It will doubtlessly always be compared to “R.A.P. Music” with the two albums being released so close together, but it is different enough to stand apart and on its own two feet. Just give it some time if it doesn't immediately click with you.
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