Sleepless fights

El-P reframes the postunderground hip-hop paradigm with I'll Sleep When You're Dead

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In May 2002, El Producto issued the acidic collage Fantastic Damage on his label, Definitive Jux. Winning universal acclaim for its compendium of broken-home tales, hard-won insights, and teenage misadventures, the recording crystallized a moment when rap musicians could reject the corporate-approved pay formulas proliferating on MTV without losing a receptive and knowledgeable audience.

Five years later that promise has seemingly passed. Rhymesayers, once famous for selling hundreds of thousands of CDs without major-label support, is now distributed by Warner Bros. LA rap scion Busdriver likes to wear a T-shirt that reads, "Sorry, underground hip-hop happened ten years ago." The controversial Anticon collective, once renowned for its vision of rapping as avant-garde art, has turned its attention to experimental rock.

Meanwhile, critics have long since withdrawn their support. "Independent pop — not just hip-hop — has in many ways become a version of graduate school, a safe zone where artists can eke out a living, take their time doing specialized work," New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote in 2004. "In most cases, this is the last thing a popular musician should be doing." Unlike the participants of past movements — think early '80s hardcore or mid-'90s indie rock — neither indie rap artists nor the popist critics who hate them can imagine an alternative, noncommercial universe that is profitable as well as artistically successful.

Some things haven't changed, however. El-P, the man whose Definitive Jux imprint represents the best in underground hip-hop, remains a restlessly intelligent and caustically opinionated maverick. I'll Sleep When You're Dead, his just-released follow-up to 2002's Fantastic Damage, is one of the year's most remarkable albums, hip-hop or otherwise. I'll Sleep When You're Dead is hallucinatory and strange, but it ain't a coke rap epic. It's the equivalent of a distorted lens refracting El-P's mind, bent during wartime, and he stays afloat through torrential word pours and samples collated into Sheetrock. "Why should I be sober when God is so clearly dusted out of his mind / With cherubs puffing a bundle tryna remember why he even tried / Down here it's 30 percent every year to fund the world's end / But I'm broke on Atlantic Ave. tryna to cop the bootleg instead," he raps on "Smithereens (Stop Cryin)." Despite the knotty slanguage, however, his lyrics are conceptually grounded, even when he musses with the details.

"I think the record has a political tinge to it, but it wasn't me trying to feed you my crappy, base understanding of geopolitics," El-P says via phone from Planet New York. "I think the record is a snapshot of a mind state during a time that is highly politicized and strange.... I don't think anyone needs to hear my perspective on why war is bad or what's happening in the world. I just think that I'm very influenced by the tone of the times, and it comes through."

Deliberately twisted, I'll Sleep When You're Dead isn't, as El-P puts it, "constructs for the radio." Some of the tracks, such as "Everything Must Go" and "No Kings," are simple yet evocative b-boy rants with fresh rhymes. Others are stories. "Habeas Corpses" details a prison guard and firing-squad technician in a futuristic American prison camp — "This is incredibly nerdy," El-P says — who falls in love with one of the prisoners destined to be executed. He questions his feelings for her, but in the end he shoots her.

Eye-catching names such as Cat Power, Trent Reznor, members of the Mars Volta, and Daryl Palumbo from Head Automatica riddle I'll Sleep When You're Dead 's liner notes.

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