El-P is many things: an entrepreneur, a label head, and a producer but on his own releases he’s primarily known as a rapper. This is why it’s so remarkable that his latest album, Cancer 4 Cure, not only sets the tone, but tells you everything you need to know about the album in the first two minutes and 50 seconds. Until that point, album opener “Request Denied” sounds as if it were building momentum for a Tron Lightcycle race. Suddenly at 2:47, the enter floor drops out and is replaced with a single, repetitive beat. Not a beat, a pounding. Not pounding, like on a wall, like footsteps. Footsteps of something very large and very ominous coming for you and whatever it is, it’s just out of sight and that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. All this happens before El-P even takes his first inhale on the mic, and before he even begins berating you with his rapid fire assault you know what this is. This is the 800 pound gorilla that’s coming for you and while you can’t explain why it’s after you, it’s probably all of humanity’s fault.
Cancer 4 Cure takes its energy from a slightly pessimistic and misanthropic view of the world. El-P (and various collaborators) tackle a range of subjects from drone strikes, other rappers, the police and even self-doubt and paranoia. Don’t expect rap about Escalades and private jets, unless they’re being turned over and used as cover from predator drones. It sounds depressing and it certainly can be, but only when that’s EL-P’s thrust. Songs like “Oh Hail No” are undoubtedly pessimistic with a chorus of, “Pocket full of air plus nothing to wear/ I’ve been told I was put here to fail,” but are so well-crafted and defiant that the listener never feels downtrodden. The air of “dying with the middle finger up” that permeates Cancer 4 Cure is what keeps the lyrics fresh. It’s the complete opposite approach of ignorance is bliss, sort of, “better to know you’re surrounded by shit, than sitting in it with your mouth open.” And El-P makes a point of knowing exactly what’s going on.
While the lyrical content of Cancer 4 Cure is noteworthy it would be ridiculous to overlook El-P’s amazing production of the album as well. El-P has been working on the album since at least 2009, and the meticulous attention to every detail shows. While the overall tone is a sort of mechanized grinding, every track is layered with subtle nuances that come out over multiple listens. This is framed in “Oh Hail No,” where El-P perfectly adjusts the beat to conform to three very different flows. While the most overt is the near complete stop and start into Danny Brown’s third verse, the adjustment to Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire’s verse is much more subtle, but equally fitting. The flourishes that inhabit El-P’s first verse are dropped and the beat is stripped down to so nothing interferes with eXquire’s fast paced and rolling verse. Shifts like this are everywhere through the album, keeping tracks interesting but never disjointed. While it’s easy to over look these subtleties in an album that also produces absolutely crushing beats (“The Full Retard” and the previously mentioned “Request Denied”), they highlight a nearly neurotic level of attention that El-P possesses.
While El-P has been making music for over 20 years, much of his solo career has been recognized in part by artists he helped bring up. That’s not really an insult when your label produces acts like Aesop Rock, Murs, Cannibal Ox, Mr. Lif and RJD2. Still Cancer 4 Cure highlights why El-P has such an ear for talent and why that talent would want to work with him. El-P isn’t just a rapper or a producer, he’s an artist in the true sense of the word. Cancer 4 Cure is an album with style and content that should transcend genre definition and appeal to anyone who wants to see the mind of a meticulous (perhaps a bit misanthropic) master at work.