Cage Hell’s Winter

[Def Jux; 2005]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: underground hip-hop
Others: Eminem, Mr. Eon, Aesop Rock, Dead Kennedys

For the longest time, all I knew of Cage was a small headshot photograph. In the photograph he had a mouthful of spiky objects: metal pins? needles? toothpicks? — at the time I didn't know which it was (turned out to be toothpicks). Like many kids, I found audio samples of Cage in the cavern-like depths of the early internet. I distinctly remember sadomasochistic pornography being just a matter of clicks away from the "Radiohead"/"Agent Orange" twelve-inch sample. The songs played, of course, on the staticky, pre-millennial Real Player. It was creepy, disturbing. That b-side made my skin crawl, hiding inside Mom's pillowcase, only to become infected with bed mites. Discoveries into Cage's demented past worked to further the lunatic mystique. Stories of both clinical and personal drug experimentation, being strapped to asylum mattresses, and violent, unabashed outbursts gave you the feeling there was validity to the cuckoo music and persona.

The first personal encounter I had with Cage occurred outside Fat Beats in New York. I made the short trip across the Hudson to buy some vinyl with a few bucks of leftover birthday money. As he stood just inside the record store doorway, I asked him where the 9th Street Path station was. To be honest, I knew exactly where the station was (it was right around the corner), but I just wanted to speak to the berserk character. He answered with a point in the correct direction. That was all I got. He looked rundown. He looked like something had gotten the best of him.

The Cage on Hell's Winter is a different Cage altogether. With his move from Eastern Conference to Definitive Jux, he's revamped his morale and his material. Gone is the misogynistic, brainsick nut, and what remains is the stark, whiny, nasal voice — nasal in an "I broke my nose throwing myself down a concrete factory staircase" kind of way. The voice no longer speaks in perversities or with comments on unruly bitch-killing behavior. Now the voice reflects and, most importantly, realizes. Hell's Winter is Cage straightening everything out, without the aid of a Posey straitjacket. There is no blood pooling in his elbows; there are no friction buckles clanging against padded walls.

Cage has reevaluated his whole approach to making music. In recent interviews, he's mentioned the emptiness that an album of punchlines or sick and twisted exploits will grant an artist. He has also spoken negatively of a hasty creation process. As he correlates an error in his life with his music, his newfound respect for the writing and recording of material shines through -- and his production staff and musical assistants help tremendously. El-P, Blockhead, and Camu Tao provide multiple backdrops, while production behemoths DJ Shadow and RJD2 each bless Cage with individual tracks. Jello Biafra even guests as George Dubya for some political rabble-rousing.

The former Alexander de Large-obsessive is now tackling the subject of abuse, rather than singing its praises. The harmful mark of the hand is a common theme on Hell's Winter. Cage is dead set on exorcising, conveying, and triumphing over his cursed past, and he has always been capable of spitting graphic images for listeners to cringe or cackle at. Although he retains that skill and the acerbic voice that delivers such painstakingly composed pictures, the intent is no longer just to shock or appall; the intent is to call attention to and depict accurately these nasty events.

Hell's Winter is a fine piece of music. It's the work of a man who at first seemed doomed to repeat and re-record the same songs over and over again for the same cult following, but instead broke out of it. Cage hasn't been this good since we were first introduced.

1. Good Morning
2. Too Heavy For Cherubs
3. Grand Ol Party Crash
4. The Death of Chris Palko
5. Stripes
6. Shoot Frank
7. Scenester
8. Perfect World
9. Subtle Art of the Breakup
10. Peeranoia
11. Left It To Us
12. Public Property
13. Lord Have Mercy
14. Hell's Winter