Rating: 3.5/5In May 2009, Definitive Jux founder and cornerstone of independent hip-hop El-P suffered what could only be described as an apocalyptic hard drive crash. Having lost almost an entire year’s work of production for the follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2007 album I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, El put his energy into mixing what would become the final releases on the Def Jux imprint he presided over for a decade. Shortly after, El’s hard-drive made a full recovery and now, right on time with his every-five-years cycle, we have a new full-length from him in Cancer4Cure.
That’s not to say El hasn’t been busy during these half-decade stretches. Since we last left our hero, he’s released an instrumental album in Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3, oversaw the completion of his late best friend Camu Tao’s album King of Hearts and produced the entirety of rapper Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music. Yet, listening to how obscenely complex Cancer4Cure is, it will likely take twice that amount of time to unpack everything El has done here. His best work as a rapper, stemming from his early days in seminal ’90s underground outfit Company Flow, is known for densely packed rhymes delivered with a meticulous precision in a fashion that only he could. While his production has moved from a warmly layered analog dystopia to a kinetic digital paranoia, his sound is as definitive and fully realized as ever. El’s always known how to produce to accentuate an artist’s greatest strengths, and he knows himself better than anyone.
While five years is the length of about two lifetimes in the rap world, El’s sound remains original enough to be of his own vacuum, allowing his earlier work to not sound dated as well as making Cancer4Cure sound completely refreshing. But while Fantastic Damage and I’ll Sleep When Your Dead both had the brooding omnipresence that could only have risen from the Bush era, Cancer4Cure bears a much more intimate ricochet that reflect El’s personal turmoil. That’s not to say there aren’t any political or social touchstones, this is after all the guy who wrote Soundbombing II’s “Patriotism” while Clinton was in charge, but the driving force behind this new album is coping with the loss of someone who El held dear. The echoes and influence of Camu Tao’s spirit can be heard from the start with both his voice being sampled as well as El quoting him in the first official single, “The Full Retard.” The album also closes with “$4 VicFTL (Me And You),” where El explicitly dedicates the album to his fallen friend, as well as uses part of a verse from his 2008 Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixx2, the last project he completed while Camu was alive. We’ve gotten El’s visceral unfiltered personal emotion throughout his career on songs like Company Flow’s “Last Good Sleep,” “Stepfather Factory” and “The Overly Dramatic Truth,” but with the tragedy of Camu’s untimely passing being both so public as well as carrying so much gravity in El’s creativity, the bulk of Cancer 4 Cure feels like El working through the stages of grief in real time.
Another aspect of El’s work that makes the five year gap between albums so intriguing is his use of guest appearances, capturing a snapshot of who was in his life at the time. Here, at Cancer4Cure’s midpoint we have the intriguing pairings of Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire and Danny Brown followed by Killer Mike and Despot on consecutive tracks. While eXquire and Brown have collaborated before, El’s beat change-ups between the two on “Oh Hail No” isolates what makes both great while also allowing the track to shine. Then, on “Tougher Colder,” El has Mike and Despot trading bars back and forth, giving the same effect. It’s another testament to El’s production skills that he knows who to utilize and where to put them, particularly when incorporating the vocals of Nick Diamonds on the album’s highlight “Stay Down.”
All of El’s albums have seemed alive in their own way, but while Fantastic Damage felt like a city on the verge of collapse and I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was an animatronic tyrannosaurus, Cancer4Cure has the strongest heartbeat yet. Even the moments that I initially found cringe-worthy (El’s singing on “For My Upstairs Neighbor”) I couldn’t shake out of my head and after repeat listens are they’re now among my favorite parts of the record. It’s further proof El is a visionary and Cancer4Cure is yet another testament of his greatness.