MGF Reviews El-P – I'll Sleep When You're Dead


El-P – I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead
Definitive Jux (3/20/07)

It was the morning of September 11, 2001, and the planes had already crashed into the World Trade Center. I watched on television as a doomed couple held hands, right before they jumped from a tower engulfed in flames. A moment later, I watched their adjoined bodies pummel the rubble below as white-faced onlookers frantically ran as fast and far away as possible.

For New York City native Jamie Meline (a.k.a. El-P) that inimitably dark moment of destruction and despair seems to be a never-ending one. It’s almost as if the disturbing images of that day were drawn onto the insides of his eyelids, preventing him from ever again getting a good night’s sleep. The former Company Flow mouthpiece’s solo debut, Fantastic Damage, was arguably one of the finest indie-rap albums released in the post-9/11 era. It has been more than five years since its release and finally, El-P has completed his much-anticipated follow-up project.

He believes that NYC is still in dire need of some therapy and as rare as great records are today, there are even less “timely records” being made. He contends fewer and fewer artists are concerning themselves with the art form of an album, opting instead to mingle mismatched singles together on one disc. With this project, it was his goal to create an “interconnected representation of The Now”.

In the past, El-P has given us songs with far more substance than your standard brand of watered-down dance jams. He has always strayed away from the hit-based hip-hop that has recently lulled sophisticated listeners to sleep. He is the antithesis of silky smooth. He’s a brazen, rough-around-the-edges wiseass who enjoys seeing blood leak from your eardrums after you’ve listened to his album with a pair of headphones.

The first track begins with a haunting Twin Peaks vocal sample. “Do you think that if you were falling in space, you would slow down or go faster and faster? Faster and faster. For a long time you wouldn’t feel anything, then you’d burst into fire forever, and the angels wouldn’t help you because they’ve all gone away…”

Following the ominous intro, the album freefalls over the next thirteen tracks, as you continue to plunge beside it through space and time. The average listener probably isn’t familiar with El-P, but many musicians (hip-hop & rock) consider him to be one of the most talented members of his generation. A sizeable pack of admirers made contributions to the album. As a result, it’s an eclectic blend of hip-hop, funk, electronica, and industrial rock.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails sings the chorus of “Flyentology” while Omar and Ikey of The Mars Volta croon over Matt Sweeney’s guitar on “Tasmanian Pain Coaster”. On “Poisenville Kids No Wins”, El-P employs singer/songwriter Cat Power. (He is slated to oversee production on Cat Power’s upcoming album, and thereafter, will begin working in the studio with TV on the Radio.)

During the futuristic journey into “The Now”, a conflicted El-P lets his pessimistic side and his optimistic side trade shots with one another. El-P’s abstract lyrics tend to bounce back and forth between concise and convoluted. Most of the time, his delivery is crystal clear, but once in a while, his gravely rasped verses turn indecipherable.

The bulk of the album features El-P’s signature sound of severed rhythms. Futuristic synths are combined with equally ultramodern drums. The master-engineer cooks up machinist beats coupled with obscure samples and distorted pianos. Every electronic blip and bleep drips with dread and doom. With I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, El-P has drawn out a science-fiction dreamworld. If the audio was accompanied by a music video, it might look something like A Scanner Darkly, if Martin Scorsese handled the Phillip K. Dick adaptation instead of Richard Linklater. The album paints a dystopian future in New York City, a neon portrait of collapsed buildings and run-down bodegas; of bustling crowds and outdated subway maps; of graffiti’d bricks and cold concrete; of Newport cigarettes and corner store 40s.

On both the album’s opening and closing track, El-P exclaims, “This is the sound of what you don’t know killing you. This is the sound of what you don’t believe, still true.” And that is more or less what it’s all about. The album primarily concerns itself with the unspoken realities that cause the unfortunate ones to slowly rot away.

“Why should I be sober when God is so clearly out of his mind? The whole design’s got my mind crying… insane again, laughing, cackling at the city’s randomness, and all its facts” he raps.

El-P has continued using his craft to explore himself in relation to the New York City landscape, and has once again done so with obvious passion and attachment. The gritty NYC-centric album is reminiscent of Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein and Non-Phixion’s The Future Is Now.

I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead certainly isn’t the most melodic or accessible brand of hip-hop available; the ever-progressive sound of El-P will always require one dedicated listen after another. Digesting this clunky, gloomy funk will prove impossible for most, but others will admire the controlled chaos of this conceptual gem.

The restless El-P might not be able to sleep until he’s dead, but in the meantime, he can at least fight to keep hip-hop (and its birthplace) alive and well.