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Cancer 4 Cure is both reinvention and inversion. El-P‘s first album since putting Def Jux on hiatus in early 2010 marks a break from the old order and another call to arms. Whereas Fantastic Damage served as a Def Jux coming out party and I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead synthesized the sweaty jitters of the mid-Dubya daze, Cancer 4 Cure consciously creates its own iron galaxy. None of the Def Jukies appear, save for Despot. In their stead are eXquire, Danny Brown, and a snarling Killer Mike, whose El-P produced R.A.P. Music is already the front-runner for rap album of the year. Any one of their guest spots could be a hip-hop quotable, if we still lived at a time when people cared about the Hip Hop Quotable. But my vote goes to Danny Brown, self-described as “Ric Flair/ With thick hair/ Yelling out ‘woo’/ Getting head in the director’s chair.”
Cancer 4 Cure’s closest analogue may be Portishead’s Third: the textures and tones are distinctly different from past releases, but it’s unimaginable that it could be made by anyone else. El-P has described the record as fight music abstracted. To be more specific, it’s fight or flight music. Primal response mechanism rap.
The beats. The synths sound like they’ve been stolen from a bargain bin on Alpha Centauri, stocked with futuristic workout anthems for robot soldiers. Listening to it in daylight hours can make you feel allergic to sunlight. Most rumble at 130 to 140 BPM and feel uniquely congruent with and ahead of the times. After all, the producers at L.A.’s Low End Theory and the early London dubstep architects all owe a small but significant debt to El’s experiments with negative space and bone-chipping bass.
What grounds the record is a scarcely subliminated obsession with death. Dedicated to Camu Tao, whose demise directly preceded its creation, the characters are forever warring with some imminent end, whether creative, romantic, or literal. It’s rare when re-inventions seem so deliberate but unselfconscious. And through the struggle it gains a certain scarred freedom. It’s simultaneously able to stand alone but alongside that trademark blend of sneering New York City skepticism. It sheds the bullshit of the past and is stained with the weary residue of an incalculable number of cigarettes, weed deliveries, bodega runs, and blind turns. It’s the best kind of tribute El-P could make: a record that you can pump like they do in the future. — Pitchfork