Album: I'll Sleep When You're Dead
Comments: El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is a lot of things. It’s dark, both in mood and in concept. It’s challenging, both in its lyrical flow and in its production. It’s, at times, abrasive and harsh; some tracks on this album are difficult to listen to without serious focus at what it being play. It’s also innovative. It’s rich in layers and subject matter. And, it’s the best hip hop album of 2007, no question.
Before getting in to the album itself, let me first try to dissect hip hop a little bit. For the purposes of this discussion, lets break hip hop down into ying and yang. One half of hip hop is the kind of thing one hears on the radio; this is hip hop for the masses. This hip hop has got beats that people can dance to, and the kind of catchy hooks that have a way of burrowing themselves into brainstems. Let’s call this Mainstream Hip Hop. You heard that song “This is Why I’m Hot”? That’s Mainstream Hip Hop.
The other half, the darker half of hip hop isn’t really much for dancing or hooks, and you won’t hear a lot of songs about the club, or dropping it like its hot, or any of that. This second brand of hip hop puts more of its emphasis on flow; artists of this second brand like to play with words and internal rhyme schemes to see what they can come up with, the more complex the better. The production is not so much about groove and beat as much as it is about creating a landscape in which for the lyrics to exist; sometimes subdued, sometimes over the top, this production is never happy with stasis, and instead always tries to push itself forward. This is Underground Hip Hop.
I’m not here to say which is better than the other, because both have got their pluses and minuses. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is, without question, in the second category. So if that kind of hip hop doesn’t sound that good to you, if you just want to dance, then this is not the record for you. However, if Underground Hip Hop sounds like something you’d be into, then you need to get your hands on El-P’s latest.
Let’s ignore lyrics and production for a minute, and let’s focus solely on the atmosphere of this record. If the world were to end tomorrow, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead would be the soundtrack to the aftermath (so, yeah, this isn’t really a cheerful album). El-P’s sophomore release is full of dystopian paranoia against the government, his fellow citizens, and anyone who isn’t him. This is a lonely, angry, and fearful record that is focused at the times in which we live; the album supports the idea that something very big, and very bad, is going to happen very soon.
El-P works best on this album as a story teller. On the excellent opening track “Tasmanian Pain Coaster”, El-P takes on the roll of himself and a nameless, faceless wanderer who has been abused by the system and has seen the rust in the gears, and deals with it through substance abuse (umm, yeah, once again, NOT a happy album). Later on in the album, the one-two punch of “Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love Story” and “The Overly Dramatic Truth” both focus on love, one painting El-P as a potential savior for a doomed love, the other showing him as broken, flawed Harttigan trying to protect his love by pushing her away, lest she be corrupted by his flaws. El-P is also in prime battle mode, lashing out against war in “Dear Sirs”, an anonymous character who has crossed him “Poisinville”, and driving in NYC traffic on the aptly named “Drive”. And while he is never too concerned about sticking to the beat or making himself totally clear, there is a subtle brilliance in his lyrics, not to mention some seriously good one lines peppered throughout the album (the surface that gave birth to the style is NY/ the jihad recipient sky is too fly).
The production on this album is top notch; a combination of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad and RZA’s ADD style. El-P handles the bulk of the production himself, but he does get some guest help from Trent Reznor, (ok, that makes sense, what with Nine Inch Nails and all) The Mars Volta (who contribute the excellent “Tasmanian Pain Coaster”, making it the best thing they’ve ever done) and Cat Power (What?! Cat Power? Indie folk bands can produce?). Each of the guests bring their own unique style to the record, and it fits with the doomed feel of the album. Each song starts and ends in different places, constantly pushing the beat to its limits with the subtle addition and subtraction of new elements. This kind of innovative production is what makes this album so good, yet so challenging. Because of the original and constantly shifting production, there is not much in the way of catchy melody. This, in the end, is my only complaint against the album; after two listens it is unbelievable, but getting through that first listen can be a struggle.
El-P has made more than just an album. It is a snapshot of the world in which we live; where celebrities believe in aliens, the world seems pretty angry at us, and people way up every day fearing the worst. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is, hands down, the best hip hop record of the year, underground or mainstream, and maybe one of the top 10 best of the last 10 years.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Key Tracks: Tasmanina Pain Coaster, Drive, EMG, Run The Numbers, Habeus Corpses, The Overly Dramatic Truth, Poisonville No Kids Win
Worth The Money: Yes
NOTE: I know I've been pretty M.I.A the last two weeks. I'm working on getting back on track. Look for two Modest Mouse reviews, and a review of Ted Leo's latest. Holla.