CLASSIC CHAZ: El-P “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” – Music Review

It's a bird, OK?!

With this week’s release of El-P’s Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3 and my review of it over at Spectrum Culture, I thought now would be a good time to up a review I did of El’s previous album that originally ran in March, 2007 for the now defunct DropMagazine. They had me rate things on scale of 1.0 to 10.0 where this originally received a 9.5, but I’ve modified it to match the strict 1-5 motif of our little playhouse. Enjoy!

“This is the sound of what you don’t know killing you” begins the chorus of “Tasmanian Pain Coaster,” the opening track from MC/Producer El-P’s highly anticipated 2007 album I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. Easily the best publicized independent release of the year thus far, with promotional campaigns involving the likes of the New York Times, iTunes, and the Cartoon network’s Adult Swim programming block, the former Company Flow frontman managed to bright Definitive Jux to the Billboard promised land, debuting at #78 on the top 200 and moving 11,417 units in its first week at a time when rap releases are being outsold by a two-to-one ratio by Dane Cook. With his previous release, 2002’s Fantastic Damage peaking at #198 and the label’s previous highest charter, Aesop Rock’s 2003 album Bazooka Tooth, only reaching #112, it seems the Definitive Jux bulldozer is continuing to roll strongly, picking up new fans with each go-round.

This should come as no surprise as, in the five years between releases, El has remained quite the busy beaver. While some have mistakenly referred to this time as a hiatus, El has been quite active through releasing a jazz album, overseeing the production on albums from flagship artists Cage and Mr. Lif, launching a digital download website for his label, and contributing remixes to such high-profile artists as Beck and Nine Inch Nails. Such efforts, as well as changing times, have seemingly impacted his soundscape. While he retains his trademark wall-of-sound production ethos, the transitions are far less jarring and his song structure, such as the verse-chorus-verse lyrics of “EMG” and “Up All Night,” has evolved to become somewhat more linear.

But it is the very limitation that El places himself in that allows I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead to function as such a wonderfully executed experiment of a record. Painstakingly orchestrated in the format of an actual album, a process forgotten by most in today’s ever-changing digital-music landscape, each of the albums 13 tracks not only maintain, but emphasized the project’s progressive momentum simply by being organized next to one another. And with El-P’s verses, as well as two guest appearances by Cage and Aesop Rock and countless blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameo ranging from Trent Reznor to Cat Power to Slug from Atmosphere to former Company Flow DJ Mr. Len, all mixed as part of the presentation, instead of just at the forefront, and you have an almost daunting finished product that, on realized ambition alone, stands head-and-shoulders over any rap release in recent memory.

One of my favorite promo images.

Such layers gives not only the album a fully flourished final product, but gives the listener several options regarding how to approach ingesting it. At face value, one is treated to vivid storytelling (El encountering a ravaged acquaintance on the subway in “Tasmanian Pain Coaster,” finding love on a futuristic prison ship in “Habeas Corpses”), inspired ranting (taking Mayor Bloomberg and rappers who “went from battle rap to gun talk like we ain’t notice the change” to task on “Smithereens,” listing things more plausible than his participation in military service on “Dead Sirs”) and unpretentious coming-of-age realizations (the pitfalls of a May-December romance on “The Overly Dramatic Truth,” coping with addiction on “Poisonville Kids No Wins”). Further analyzation reveals numerous possible interpretations and gems buried within the soundscape (it took me at least a dozen listens to recognize the distorted Tickle-Me-Elmo laughter in “Tasmanian Pain Coaster”) to the point where those interested in further listening with be handsomely rewarded.

Despite all this album has going for it, there are some flaws. The least of which, is how certain songs only work within the confines of the album itself and fails to stand on their own. Yet, since this album was designed to be listened to as a whole, one can’t hold that against it. Otherwise, after such a tour-de-force, the album’s ultimate conclusion at the end of “Poisonville Kids No Wins” just seems anticlimactic, and not in a manner that falls in line with the rest of the album’s painfully bleak tone. I’d imagine El was going for the effect of having such a complex release slowly stripping itself of each layer to the point of nothing to give contrast and a certain space to breathe again following the journey, but such an ending just doesn’t function perhaps due to it’s rather quick speed after such a tumultuous journey.

Still, that’s truly knit-picking and shouldn’t dissuade you in the least from one of the most important, and enjoyable, releases our genre has seen in quite sometime. The album is intelligent, intellectual, inventive, intentionally humorous, and most importantly sounds great. Truly an outstanding effort on the part of El-Producto that he will no longer have to lose sleep over.

We give I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead a Four Out of Five

So until next time…let’s agree to agree!

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