El-P doesn’t give a fuck about you. His disdain for you, spewed forth in a torrent of righteous fury and hyper-articulate wrath, is the lifeblood of his music. His verses, when you can keep up with them, can read like pages torn from the grimiest chapters of the Old Testament and rewritten by post-apocalyptic road warriors who breakdance for water rights; when he spits them on the mic, you’re reminded that rap was born as a competitive game — and you’re reminded why that used to matter so much.
Which could seem like so much empty hyperbole, except that El-P was, as a matter of fact, there. Born in Brooklyn around the same time as the members of Wu Tang, James Meline grew up in the same climate that produced rap as a genre and most of the genre’s early greats. He’s spent a busy life playing virtually every position that matters in the rap game and excelling at each: emcee, producer, and with Definitive Jux, record company founder. With such an impressive resume, you might have been forgiven for expecting Cancer 4 Cure, El-P’s latest solo record and his first away from Def Jux since 2004, to be something less than mind-blowing. A late career holdover record; something to pay the bills and feed the kids. But then, El-P has exactly as much respect for your expectations as he does for everything else about you. Which: none. And he went and made an unabashedly ambitious neck-snapper of a rap record so he could tell you all about it.
Cancer 4 Cure is as hard and vital as anything El-P has ever released, and that’s no light praise. The production might not quite reach the glorious heights graced by Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein (2001), but it exhibits a gritty savagery and restless experimental spirit that is never less than thrilling — and sometimes astonishing. The percussion on tracks like “True Story” skitters, pops, and even falls off completely, only to be refolded into beats even more jagged and unhinged. And El’s synths are wielded alternately like power tools and firearms, except on “Drones Over BKLYN,” where they come drunkenly together to evoke a dystopian future made frightfully present: urban sci-fi for 2012’s socially conscious rap fan. A “fresh start on a new world,” indeed. Meanwhile, the eight-minute closer, “$4 Vic/FTL (Me And You),” is every bit as ambitious and convoluted as its title, and would be a daring last act for any record; the fact that it feels fitting and justified here is a testament to the true breadth and scope of the sonic vision on display throughout Cancer 4 Cure.
As an emcee, El-P leaves most of his contemporaries in the dust; his rapid-fire delivery, complex rhyme schemes, and savage charisma feel mercifully out of a place in a rap market dominated by Auto-Tuned nothings and the aimless, lovely mumblings of the cloud rappers. He’s an old school battle-rapper, both soldier and and entertainer: a guy who’s not afraid to throw out a good keytar boast while otherwise inventorying the army he’s going to kick your ass with (in “The Full Retard”). He’s smart, but not “socially conscious” in the naïve sense that phrase has taken on. He brags, but doesn’t need to make up shit about drugs to be respected. He can call a song “For My Upstairs Neighbor,” and you’ll know exactly the kind of decimation in store, but he’s also loving and grateful in the latter part of “$4 Vic/FTL (Me And You).” He is, basically, whatever he wants to be. And I’m okay with that. I’ll “tell him what he wants to hear” and sign where he wants me to sign. As long he keeps putting out records like Cancer 4 Cure every few years, I’ll soak up his disdain like so much freely-given sunshine.