The most quotable hip-hop record of the year so far is also the most unremittingly bleak. This doesn't say as much for the media-deathwatch state of rap as it does for Jamie "El Producto" Meline's singular ability to make everyday personal horror compelling; few other MCs can match the way he articulates his own post-traumatic worldview in terms striking enough to temper its unflinching pessimism. Then again, few MCs are this pessimistic: whether with his original group Company Flow, as a solo artist, as a producer, or as a guest on a track, El-P has spent the last ten years finding new ways to twist his head around the deterioration of his surroundings.
On "Smithereens (Stop Cryin')," the second track off his sophomore solo album, I'll Sleep When You're Dead, he delivers a priceless moment of self-destructive response to the decay: "Why should I be sober when God is so clearly dusted out his mind?" "Drive" proves that the car-as-freedom metaphor is a trap ("My Triple-A card has one too many initials"). And "EMG" makes his Brooklyn b-boy credentials into the stuff of Cronenberg nightmares: "Horse hoofs and meat, I'm glued to the beat, grindin'/Stolen hovercraft draggin' a bass stab behind it."
Guests from the indie/alt-rock world contribute to the album, from Trent Reznor to Chan Marshall to Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew, but they're practically ancillary; if any sound dominates the record it's El's signature dystopian electric-funeral funk production (with a couple of interesting side-turns into throwback BDP '87 beats). But it's the ease of his once-nigh-impenetrable rapid-fire flow that makes this album his strongest and most accessible yet, and El's words are clearer than ever, even if his grasp isn't: "Welcome to my bastard delight night, gents/Where everything has a meaning but none of it makes sense."
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