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Brandon Perkins Headshot

Review: El-P's Never Easy 'Cancer 4 Cure'

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The Internet has ruined so many things. Once upon a time, people had to work for entertainment's gratification. I remember friends riding their bike two hours to the nearest mall for a copy of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony's E 1999 Eternal on the Tuesday it dropped. I had to search for months through Boston's record stores to find a copy of Donny Hathaway Live. Now Google doesn't even need us to finish typing an artist's name before pointing us to a YouTube clip of their latest song. Without consulting producer/emcee El-P, I can confidently say that he couldn't care less. His newest offering, Cancer 4 Care (out today), relishes in being difficult.

One of hip-hop's defining and most exhilarating moments is when the beat drops out and allows a particularly powerful or poignant punchline to garner all the shine. As a producer, El-P is among the best at setting up these moments. At the end of his first single's second verse, such an apex is set-up only for the Brooklynite to mutter "Fuck start your burp hole, jet in burgundy pleather." The line is cryptic enough when transcribed (via his blogspot), but on "The Full Retard" it sounds like the whimsical placeholder text of Lorem Ipsum. Space is made in the instrumental for everyone to sing along, but the man refuses to make things easy. As if calling one of the record's catchier songs "The Full Retard" could possibly prove otherwise.

The difficulties compound. El-P begins C4C with two and a half minutes of face-pounding production before launching into one of his patented rants. He starts a sci-fi story track with a triple negative ("Don't you know this is a rotten time to not not be me?"). His musical landscapes address the grieving process the way we do in real life -- always there, but never fully head-on -- and it's no surprise that the recording of C4C came while El-P was mourning his friend and collaborator Camu Tao. His biggest guest star is the nasal-voiced riddle known as Danny Brown. Good luck finding a chorus. It's all thrilling precisely because it isn't easy, but it also serves a greater purpose.

When things do come together in a way that's slightly more traditional, the rewards are huge. On "Stay Down," which he killed on Letterman, the elements crescendo into the type of release that makes Skrillex so popular with the kids -- only if Skrillex used live drums and a rusty ass trombone. The lines that he takes the time to enunciate are achingly gorgeous: "And I can buy my way off of Planet Nerf / Where the softest hearts get tossed around on astroturf." Then there are the vocal stylings that are looped and warped to sound like howling wolves until the hair stands on every arm. Perhaps best of all, a brief conversation between El-P and a robot voice that debates the merits of "bringing it back." It gets brought back and it's victorious.

These little moments matter because they take work to get there. It may not be a bike ride to the mall, but it's a thrill to pedal through the dystopian variables and arrive at something concrete, and occasionally, truly celebratory. It's not far off from El-P's career as a whole. It's been six years since he's released a record and El-P released two this month (including his brilliant partnership with Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music). He's been warning the underground rap population about government surveillance for over a decade and when he raps about "Drones Over Brooklyn" on Cancer 4 Cure, it isn't a conspiracy theory anymore. Perhaps the world has finally caught up with the man who helped redefine independent hip-hop. Then again, El-P never painted a pretty picture of easy living.