Like most listeners my age, much of the underground hip-hop that pulled me away from the mainstream was put to shelves by a since-defunct imprint called Rawkus Records. Initially known for a classic run of 12″ singles, Rawkus eventually released Company Flow’s debut LP, the storied Funcrusher Plus, during the summer of 1997. And while there were a number of great Rawkus releases that followed over the next five years (most notably Mos Def’s Black On Both Sides), it was Funcrusher – and maybe Kool Keith and Automator’s Dor. Octagonecologyst album – that started sparked the alternative hip-hop movement that spat then spit-out through the Naughts. To be even more specific, it was the work a man named Jaime “El-P” Meline, who arguably changed the sound, approach, mood and authenticity of underground hip-hop. While his writing – which was as complex as anything any hip-hop fan had heard to that point – it was El-P’s dense, gritty, dark and industrial production that really made an impact. His sound – then, and maybe even still today – was the biggest, boldest and most interesting hip-hop fans had heard since RZA’s first few productions shocked and awed.
Always busy, El-P recently produced a record for mainstream emcee Killer Mike before finally releasing his third proper solo record, the just-issued Cancer 4 Cure. One of the most anticipated hip-hop releases of recent years, Cancer comes to us by way of indie-rock imprint Fat Possum Records, El-P’s Def Jux Records having been recently put on hold. The result is nearly exactly what you’d expect: incredible production that feels cold and labored. Cinematic and eerie. There’s no sad reach for mainstream appeal but there’s also no further genre advancement. This is El-P being El-P, building thick, blue records that critique modern society, celebrate Brooklyn and introduce the larger world to lesser known talents like Danny Brown and Despot while also featuring surprise guests like forgotten Interpol frontman Paul Banks. (Other surprise artists along for the ride include Islands / Unicorns frontman Nicholas Thorburn, Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew, Chavez guitar hero Matt Sweeney and TV on the Radio guitarist Jaleel Bunton.)
While tracks like lead single “The Full Retard” and banger “Drongs Over BKLYN” feel like new classics, Cancer isn’t the grand new artistic statement a lot of us Co-Flow devotees were expecting from El-P. It’s a listenable, impressive record, but not a visionary one that adds to the saga of gritty street music. A disc you put on, marvel at the spaceman-like construction of, then file on the shelf. Cancer 4 Cure, despite sounding perfectly accomplished and looking like it should be the hip-hop OK Computer on paper, is little more than a reminder that Brooklyn hip-hop auteur El-P is still kicking around, looking for something. I wouldn’t be surprised if the guy soon finds a second career similar to the one Trent Reznor is currently enjoying in the universe of dark cinema.