I'll Sleep When You're Dead (Definitive Jux, 2007), featuring
Cat Power's Chan Marshall,
Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor,
is another subtle moral soliloquy wrapped in dense layers of estranging
sounds. The seven-minute Tasmanian Pain Coaster (with Mars Volta)
is a "message" for the
new century and its anxieties.
El-P's pessimistic vision is counterbalanced by the
lightweight music of The League Of Extraordinary Nobodies and by
the poignant noises of Smithereens.
In the meantime the radio-friendly
The Overly Dramatic Truth,
Poisenville Kids No Wins,
Run the Numbers,
Habeas Corpses and Flyentology keep El-P centerfront in
the arena of mainstream rap.
The all-instrumental mixtape
Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3 (2010) tried to secrete a digital
symphony out of a bunch of leftovers, bridging old-school hip-hop beats and
trivial dubstep bass lines.
Too cold and surgical, the production on Cancer for Cure (Fat Possum, 2012) often
fails to connect with the listener the way his visceral productions used to.
The album seems neatly divided between music in which production prevails
over lyrics, namely the
operatic and symphonic Tougher Colder Killer, the
cosmic funk shuffle Request Denied (almost entirely instrumental) and
tortured multilayered Drones Over BKLYN (basically a concentrate of sound effects); and music in which
rapping prevails over sound, namely The Full Retard and The Jig Is Up, but especially the
psychological bomb Stay Down, a concentrate of suspense and anxiety.
The two camps mix and match, with the former displaying what El-P is unique
Michael "Killer Mike" Render's
R.A.P. Music (2012), one of the most vitriolic agit-prop rap albums of
the new century.
Then EL-P and Killer Mike formed Run The Jewels,
a project that debuted with
Run The Jewels (Fool's Gold, 2013) and de facto continued Killer Mike's
From the beginning the brooding electronic soundscape and lashing sound effects
of Run The Jewels provide Killer Mike's energetic vernacular with the
ideal backing. Another peak of the collaboration comes with
the abrasive and pounding Get It, where the rap dissolves in
vocal effects that are even more tense.
Not many songs maintain that standard of musical violence, and EL-P
mostly prefers to invest in unnerving atmospheres of 36" Chain
EL-P's tricks span a huge range, and he can even indulge in peppering
Banana Clipper, a collaboration with Big Boi, with a bubbling synth
that gives it a comic flavor, or injecting a
cuckoo clock in the melodic ethereal coda of Job Well Done,
or scattering a chaotic fistful of found sounds and dissonance
throughout Twin Hype Back, a collaboration with Prince Paul.
That is not to diminish the contribution to the sound (not only to the
message) by Killer Mike's in-your-face soulful rapping, as
Sea Legs and No Come Down prove.
When Killer Mike is at his best, one feels that the beats are
weak because EL-P tend towards sophistication, not barbaric emotion,
preferring sci-fi synths, subsonic bass lines and acid guitars instead of
booming blasting noise.
It is still a far cry from the explosive agit-prop hip-hop music of
or even of Company Flow's Little Johnny From The Hospital.
If Run the Jewels 1 was mostly an El-P album, with Killer Mike guesting
as a rapper,
Run The Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal, 2014) was truly Killer Mike's album.
The difference can be perceived already in the opener, a tense but slow
Jeopardy, with the intended lyrical explosion further diluted
by a plaintive saxophone melody.
It is Killer Mike's show, and he shines in the singalong Lie Cheat Steal
as well as in the
visceral All Due Respect (boasting the best percussive effects, that
range from techno pulses to African-style propulsion).
EL-P hijacks Early with a plethora of production detours (and perhaps
a Beatles-ian or ELO-ian obsession),
triggers the panzer-grade thumping beat of Blockbuster Night Part01,
hides a melodic refrain inside the snoring basslines and hyper-dub reverbs of All My Life (like a Radiohead remix of a vintage Mersey-beat hit)
and probably pens the structure of the
vulgar cabaret skit of Love Again.
The rare cases in which the dialogue between two voices truly works are
memorable: Close Your Eyes (the second voice being a stuttering Zach de la Rocha),
and Crown, drenched in a mood of alienation (sculpted by Hendrix-ian guitar, sci-fi electronics, angelic backing vocals and a relentless alien pulsation).
Overall, this album lost some of the magic balance of the previous album,
while, of course, still being an impressive display of punk-ish elegance.
Run The Jewels 3 (2016) is all carried out in a
solemn, stark tone, and the tone is really the main ingredient of
Down and Don't Get Captured
(Hey Kids is ruined by Danny Brown's contribution).
This is meant to exude rage, especially in the two more ideological tracks:
Thieves (Screamed The Ghost) injects a line from Martin Luther King's 1967 speech "The Other America" ("A riot is the language of the unheard")
A Report To The Shareholders/ Kill Your Masters, a Caribbean shuffle that doesn't do justice to the motto "Kill our masters and start again" until the shrapnel rapping of the second half.
(One can only wonder how much more effective these songs would have been in the hands of the Pop Group or Tackhead).
But the real show is El-P's angry propulsive beats and abrasive textures, evoking urban warfare like the lyrics fail to.
Talk To Me is propelled by pounding, tank-like rhythm and anguished synth lines.
Everything contributes to create the dense pulsing apocalyptic requiem for human civilization of 2100: magmatic synthesizer, twanging guitar (reminiscent of the House of the Rising Sun) and reverbed backup vocals (alas, the singing dilutes the impact).
The ominous atmosphere of Panther Like A Panther is sculpted by African polyrhythms, Kamasi Washington's droning saxophone and Miami rapper Katrina "Trina" Taylor's twitching phrasing.
Less cataclismic but no less effective are the
post-industrial stomp of Legend Has It and
the hysterical slim shrill beat of
Call Ticketron (littered with commercials and trombone-like synth rumbles).
El-p's class is manifest in the details:
the swampy bass synth-lines and the sax fanfare of Oh Mama, or even just
the sudden change of beat halfway in the otherwise uneventful Stay Gold.
The duo gets mellow in Thursday In The Danger Room, defanged by Kamasi Washington's romantic sax and chirping synth sounds.
As ever with rap artists, the value of the message really depends on how
much poetry you read. Lines like
"life is a journey, to live is to suffer"... well, a child could have written them.
El-P's hard-hitting production is placed to the service of contemporary
protests against police brutality on RTJ4 (2020).
The stormy and confrontational Yankee and the Brave,
the disorienting and morphing Walking in the Snow (with Lola "Gangsta Boo" Mitchell),
the polyphonic Ju$t (with Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes and Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against The Machine),
the lumbering punk-rap The Ground Below,
and especially the pulsating and Terminator-evoking Never Look Back
compose their agit-prop manifesto and match the zeitgeist of 2020.
Holy Calamafuck adds a thrilling dub-tinged atmosphere,
and Pulling the Pin, a collaboration with Josh Homme of the Queens Of The Stone Age, a morbid and funereal feeling.
The closer, A Few Words for the Firing Squad, is all cinematic
runaway energy, replete with jazz saxophone and pounding bass line.
That leaves the single Ooh La La as the only light moment in an
It is their loudest album yet, the closest they have come yet to Public Enemy's agit-hop.
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