No ordinary rapper/producer, Brooklyn based EL-P (real name Jamie Meline) had previously only released one solo record, 2002's caustic, gritty 'Fantastic Damage', itself a hip-hop classic, and had busied himself otherwise with various collaborations, producing gigs and also running his own alt hip-hop label, Definitive Jux, home to such underground luminaries as Aesop Rock and Cage.So when 'I'll Sleep . . ' dropped in 2007, no one knew what to expect from the Brooklyn maestro , other than a sound and lyrical content as confrontational and forward thinking as his debut, with it's tales of alcoholic, wife beating androids(Stepfather Factory), and modern day urban alienation (Deep Space 9mm), and on this front at least, the record doesn't disappoint.Sonically however, this may just be one of the most unique albums of any genre, a dark, absorbing , and at times grimly hilarious journey through an industrial/hip hop netherworld that is at turns compelling, addictive, and exciting.
The album opens with the seven minute odyssey 'Tasmanian Pain Coaster' , which begins with Meline's stark , nasal tones rhyming over a blend of skewed beats, and spacey, sinister synths, builds through a lurching, panicked mid section and climaxes then, bizarrely but brilliantly, in a dazzling bit of prog rock pyrotechnics, with Cedric Bixler and Omar Lopez of The Mars Volta providing, respectively, the vocal histrionics and guitar fireworks.'Smithereens' follows, urgent, angry, and insistent, EL-P's fluid , sardonic and at times baffling wordplay clashing with stuttering ,monolithic beats ,and locking down a groove that is just enormous.'Up All Night's is a demented catchy call to arms, while 'Flyentology', featuring guest vocals and production from none other than Trent Reznor, is a work of crossover genius, EL-P's sarcastic , imagined prayer from a dying atheist alternately poignant and funny, while 'Run The Numbers', featuring long standing collaborator Aesop Rock, is simply a work of pure genius, Rock's cryptic lyrics ("Ask me about the specials, I'd go for the razor chicken/ hope his delivery radius fly to Gracy Mansion") and the pair's seamless interplay and energy putting to shame pretty much every shitty rap team up in history.
But perhaps the best recommendation one can make of the album , or indeed EL-P's work in general , is the refusal to dumb down, or provide a radio hit to try and buoy the album above the currents of the underground , Meline's subject matter vividly invoked, and at all times , the vibe of the record is one of articulate confrontation lyrically, and sonically, pushing the envelope of alternative hip-hop to incorporate industrial , jazz, new wave and even psychedelia, but all the while keeping a solid framework of thoughtful, subtle and cleverly constructed hip-hop beats.And if one is indeed in any doubt about the true rebel nature of this Brooklyn native, then point those peepers to his controversial video for 'Smithereens' , below, which depicts the man himself being tortured by water boarding and beatings in the manner of Guantanamo inmates.Shocking, provocative, and at times hard to watch, it sums up quite succinctly the EL-P attitude, and indeed the reason to listen to this fantastic album, namely that in a a world of posers, bullshitters, and general idiocy, there is still artists willing to take risks and say things that need to be said, and that is why I have deemed 'I'll Sleep When your Dead' an Underground Classic.
Stephen O ' Connor, for Born Again Nihilist