Toward the end of Company Flow's “The Fire in Which You Burn,” El-P finishes his verse with the line “Even when I say nothing it’s a beautiful use of negative space,” the sharpest lyrical shrapnel released by the sonic bomb that is their 1997 debut, Funcrusher Plus. It’s a trenchant sentiment, given the break-neck pace with which he characteristically delivers the battle-rap braggadocio that catalyzed his rise through the Brooklyn hip-hop ranks, his infamous fallout with Rawkus, and the subsequent establishment of his label, Definitive Jux.
Ten years on, El-P is still finding ingenious new ways to use negative space as both a mogul and a musician. Like an earthworm burrowing underground so that the green grass above might grow, he’s cultivated the likes of Rjd2, Murs, and Aesop Rock, and he surfaced during the post-9/11 rainstorm to deliver a celebrated solo LP in 2002, Fantastic Damage. Whereas those efforts tend to wallow in a sort of nihilistic abyss, though, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead takes a more mature and nuanced approach to the favored themes of paranoia, deception, and self-realization.
Don’t get it twisted though; dude’s still pissed off. On “Drive” he sneers, “C’mon mom/ Can I borrow the keys?/ My generation is car pooling with doom and disease,” before launching into a dizzying array of indictments of the establishment. Elsewhere, on “Up All Night,” the prescient chorus warns “I might have been born yesterday sir/ But I stayed up all night.” Clever as these turns-of-phrase are, though, it becomes increasingly difficult to stomach so much bleak and dystopic imagery, a problem that has plagued some of El-P’s earlier work as well as the weaker efforts from Definitive Jux. No one’s expecting sunshine and puppies, but any angry artwork walks a fine line between engaging and alienating its audience.
Thankfully, the album’s saving grace comes in the form of its infinitely compelling production. Hums, ticks, and whirrs duck and dodge between staccato drum patterns on opening track “Tasmanian Pain Coaster,” while deeply textured soundscapes envelop a doomed love story on the Automator-esque “Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love).” After repeat listens, the content of El-P’s more afflictive lyrics begins to fall away so that only the rhythm and timbre of his smoky growl remain to complement the record’s malevolent chorus of synth effects and samples. A beautiful use of negative space, indeed.
1. Tasmanian Pain Coaster
3. Up All Night
6. Dear Sirs
7. Run The Numbers
8. Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)
9. The Overly Dramatic Truth
11. No Kings
12. The League Of Extraordinarty Nobodies
13. Poisenville Kids No Wins/Reprise (This Must Be Our Time)