Album Review: El-P – Cancer for Cure

[Fat Possum; 2012]

It’s 2012. It’s still strange to say that aloud. Back in the nineties, or even ten years ago, it seemed impossibly far away. Unless you’re the one making it, imagining what music will sound like in the next ten or twenty years is pretty much impossible to do. However, if you were back in 1995 and Cancer for Cure time traveled its way into your ghetto blaster, it might very well be what you’d imagine hip-hop sounding like in 2012.

Cancer for Cure is a living, breathing behemoth. The music is principally electronic, humming with bass and subterranean synthesizers, but El-P (aka Jamie Meline) weaves other, more conventional instruments in with supreme confidence. The humanoid hook of “Drones over BKLYN” is surrounded by cheery, choppy piano, but it does nothing to mute the track’s mercilessness. “Nobody struts when they’re down on their knees,” Meline spits. Whether he’s embracing the role of the villain or just keen on taking down the guys on top is anyone’s guess. “Request Denied” drops a danceable groove over relentless snare rolls and spectral electronic scribblings, and while Meline doesn’t make his entrance for several minutes, the music is wholly captivating on its own.

The technical mastery of Cancer for Cure is evident from its opening seconds. Notwithstanding the cybernetic production, the record itself rarely feels anything less than human: wounded, sprightly, foreboding and fierce. Meline’s lyrics are engaging and often brilliant, although liner notes will be necessary for close listening. His rhyme structures are challenging, and his flow is icy, inspired by the insanity that is unfolding around him.

Although it is inherently futuristic, Meline embraces relics of pop culture and disperses them throughout the album. Woody Allen’s classic line describing how he would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like him for a member forms the basis for “The Jig Is Up.” Meline does away with Allen’s sardonic delivery, instead acidifying it and making it his. The song reeks of envy, blustering through gritted teeth. “Sign Here” depicts a torture scene with an innocent captive: “We got our ways to make you speak/ We got our ways to make you talk/ Tell me what I wanna hear.” The screechy synthesizers augment the feeling of paranoia, and the female voice that repeats “yes” in the background as Meline steals her humanity is truly disturbing.

Meline builds his own universe and populates it with barbed, poisonous set pieces. On “Works Every Time” he conjures up some impending, dystopian landscape where the line between body and mind is totally unclear. Memory erasure, space pixilation, and rebel armies are nothing out of the ordinary and dreams of home are a permanent fixture within the mind. On “Stay Down,” Meline details a riot with nightmarish imagery, similes and jaw-dropping rhyme stacks. All of the dizzy lust comes to a triumphant close on “$4 Vic/Nothing but You+Me (FTL),” a two-part epic that gains steam with every passing moment. The emotional transitions that Meline manages to capture within his voice are terrific, as it all culminates into a colossally magnanimous poetic rambling: “This goes out to the maniacs/ And aristocrat grifters/ To the zealots/ To the monarchs.”

Meline could easily have sustained the album’s runtime on his own, but a couple of choice guest spots add colour to Cancer for Cure’s repertoire. Danny Brown is his usual hilariously perverted self, and makes “Oh Hail No” his own, while Mr. Muthafuckin’ Exquire’s deep rasp fits the song’s aesthetic well. Killer Mike pops up twice as well, delivering two rock solid performances.

This record is a warning against the world that it itself foresees. On “The Full Retard” it’s suggested that “You should pump this shit/ Like they do in the future,” but Cancer for Cure plays like it’s tailor-made for the end of the world. Or the beginning of a new one. Meline’s claustrophobic lyrics and opaque production continuously steal the show, even after multiple listens. This is a high point in his already illustrious career; a labyrinthine and ultramodern take on hip-hop that will likely age like a Cabernet.