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Record Review: El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure

By / Posted on 05 June 2012

El-P — Cancer 4 Cure

They wanna kill you. You’re the cancer. You’re the fuckin’ problem.
You’re the pollution. You’re the issue that they wanna solve.
They wanna kill you. You’re the cancer, how’s that make you feel?
I should’ve stayed asleep. Waking up can get you killed.

So begins “True Story,” the exact center moments of Cancer 4 Cure, Brooklyn rapper/producer El-P’s third full-length album. Jaime Meline comes off as angry as ever, but the overarching theme to all the album’s rage is a struggle to simply sustain life. It’s seemingly impossible to discuss the new El-P LP without bringing up the incredible gap between albums and remarkable build of hype and anticipation amongst fans and supporters over the years. Consider that sentence our mention of the topic so that we can move on. If there’s one thing El-P most certainly does not want us to do with Cancer 4 Cure, it’s linger.

Cancer 4 Cure continues the trend in recent years of major hip-hop releases that delve into the darkest pits of the MC’s insecurities and doubts. Kanye West, Kid Cudi, Drake and Tyler the Creator have been lauded in recent years for committing their personal failures to wax unapologetically. The notable difference here is that, while the aforementioned artists all used these confessional raps to tear themselves down and appear more sensitive than the media portrays them to be, El-P’s self-hatred feels pure and unfiltered, entirely vitriolic, and builds himself up in the audience’s eyes. Jamie is portrayed as his own worst enemy and is more than happy to show off how brutal he can be on himself, so heaven have mercy on anyone who crosses him.

From the very first frenetic beat that interrupts the cool warning of an introduction on “Request Denied,” El-P is insistent on forcing his will. He simply must be heard, it is imperative. Only the briefest of reprieves are offered by the occasional guests on the record. Mr Muthafuckin’ eXquire’s verse on “Oh Hail No” is so much smoother and more casual than El-P’s consistently harsh force of verbs that it only serves to reinforce his rage when Jamie comes back in for the hook with a rousing “pocket full of air plus nothing to wear, I’ve been told I was put here to fail.” Only “Stay Down” puts El-P in a subdued position, as his tone matches his lyrics about dulling the outside world with cartoonish amounts of drugs as Islands/the Unicorns frontman Nick Thorburn sings a hook about drowning.

When left to his own devices, though, El-P seems to contain entirely too much passion inside his own singular frame. “For My Upstairs Neighbor” is a slow and deliberate story of the long-standing Brooklyn anti-snitch tradition with perhaps a bit too much contempt for uniformed police officers. “Drones Over BKLYN” has the most over-the-top spastic beat of the whole album, a beat that tries to become bigger than the rapper himself by blasting canned explosions to censor every PG13-rated word out of Jaime’s mouth, except that these sounds don’t replace his expletives so much as underscore them with added intensity that only punctuates his rhythmic flow. Closing track “$4 Vic / Nothing But You + Me (FTL)” is an eight-minute manifesto calling for the prog-rock of hip-hop. Surely rap has never come as close to having its own “Aqualung” as the steady build-up, destruction, and resurrection of both rapper and beat displayed here.

The onslaught is constant throughout the 49 minute affair thanks to remarkable beat production and unrelenting street flow. Cancer 4 Cure immediately feels like a rap album that will someday be held in the pantheon of perfect recordings, a cornerstone to be touched upon as inspiration for generations to come. What El-P has accomplished here is undoubtedly worthy of praise and attention.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.