Review: Will McGee
If you’re new to the type of hip-hop that comes from El-P and his fellow Def Jux alumni, it might do you well to erase whatever conceptions you have of hip-hop. People looking for feel-good beats, clever braggadocio or narratives about hard living in the mean streets might apply elsewhere; El-P’s production alone is enough to frighten away any sort of positive vibes, and his cheerless, paranoid lyrics aren’t scary in the same way as, for example, Wu-Tang’s or Mobb Deep’s.
Instead of dark alleys in the bad side of New York City, the scenery El-P paints almost seems to invoke Orwell’s 1984. While not every lyric is 100% comprehensible, some of the more easily-understood ideas on this album have to do with an apartment tenant’s morbid promise to his upstairs neighbor (if you kill him, I won’t tell) and some sort of technological police-state haunting the streets of his home (Drones Over Bklyn). Paranoia is indeed the dominating emotion throughout this album, present not only in his evocative lyrics, but also in the icy, synth-heavy production. Any sample of an old hip-hop phrase sounds less like a call-back to the greatest and more like a glimpse out of a barred prison window into the comparatively ‘normal’ lives around those of El-P’s seedy, hopeless narrators. Indeed, the only sort of positive feeling in this album (other than a brief and painfully sarcastic sequence in ‘The Full Retard’) does not show up until the very end in the short-lived and desperate, cautiously hopeful ‘FTL (Me and You)’ that makes up the second half of the last track. Before that it’s all claustrophobia, fear and world-weariness. The usual rap-tropes of bragging and threatening are here, but without the sense of humor that can make lines about killing people seem all in good fun. The guest spots generally stick to this aesthetic, except for one strangely out-of-place verse from Danny Brown.
His lyrics, as evocative as they are, do not otherwise push any kind of boundaries in hip-hop. The flow is generally practiced and true, but he often sticks to the same flows, never speeding up beyond a certain point or rhyming more than a minimal amount of syllables in each line (and sometimes not even that). Of course, technique isn’t what one listens to El-P for. As far as his lyrical content goes, he generally delivers oppressive, threatening atmosphere in droves. Occasionally, he leans into Aesop Rock territory, using bizarre figuratively language that perhaps nobody understands but him; if that’s a turn-off for you, this album isn’t going to make any kind of effort to change your mind about it. If you dig it, then you’ll be reasonably satisfied with El-P’s (sometimes ambiguously) frightening rhymes.
As for the production, the tension is palpable. Several tracks take around a minute before you’ll hear a single utterance, and it accomplishes this without becoming boring. Layers of synths stack atop one another in a gradual, disconcerting crescendo. The beats themselves are distorted enough to remove any sort of organic feeling; they care about you approximately as little as the dystopia that El-P paints around you. In some cases they can feel almost militaristic, creating a feeling of control in the second half of the album that produces almost tangible discomfort. The percussion in general seems to be a mix of a beating pulse that you wouldn’t notice unless you were looking for it or a grating, distorted drum loop as in Drones Over Bklyn.
In general, the place El-P takes you is a frightening, claustrophobic one. His songs are never quite catchy; anything like as melody is gone long before you have any chance to get it stuck in your head. The hooks themselves are hardly memorable, as are many of the verses unless you make a concerted effort to remember them. While the atmosphere is perfectly realized, the content itself seems to suffer from not being particularly deep or meaningful. The deliberate nature of the production lends an air of life-or-death to his narratives, but in general it is largely a huge setting with no real plot or resolution, and only one character you’ll remember anything about. It’s an interesting, unique and cool sound that you won’t hear anywhere else, not even from El-P’s few colleagues to his strange, obscure sect of hip-hop. It’s worth hearing even if it doesn’t make it into your regular rotation of hip-hop greats.