This is the sound of everything music should be in 2007. Violent, doom-ridden, paranoid, anger-funk that knocks like a hammer to temples; a sound so alive it’s terrifying.
The whole diatribe about hip hop being dead is trite. It’s only dead to those who are corpses in their waking lives. While Nas took on the gloom-bots with his own wry cynicism and backward-looking nostalgia, El-P must destroy it in his own terms while holding dear to what’s worth saving: the thunderous drums, the chants of ‘HO,’ the wicky wicky scratch, the James Brown sample.
The first noticeably jolting song is “Smithereens (Stop Cryin’).” El-P opens with a happy Sesame Street piano over a pleasant little flowing stream of water. Then alters the serene into vicious synths, collapsing into Star Trek attack alerts, painful screams haunting his lyrics, and screwed and chopped vocal distortions that envision El a possessed prophet. Even when he backs off with the unfussy, “No Kings,” a standard El-Producto graffiti ode, it’s crashed funk minimalism makes the Neptunes’ “stripped down hip hop production” banal.
Some might question how these futureterror motifs and apocalyptic soundscapes are any different than Fantastic Damage. In ‘I’ll Sleep,’ El-P has learned to pace himself. He has a newfound patience to let a song build slowly, in contrast to stagnant, standard hip hop production.
On the opening song, “Tasmanian Pain Coaster” he does spoken word storytelling over Phantom of the Opera organs, followed by a brief chorus chant. But the song hits its high when the instrumental swells around pounding keys and funk noise before returning for his first official verse. The sound itself is at a panicked pace, in suspended anticipation of El-P’s lyrical bidding. By the time Cedric Bixler-Zavala of Mars Volta croons a falsetto refrain, the beat is crawling along, as Omar Rodriguez’s guitar slowly releases us.
We get a taste of El-P’s “soft side” in “T.O.J.,” where he mutters how he doesn’t “feel very clever right now,” instead leaving it to weepy organs and glitch blips to express his remorse. This time around, he’s got a lot say to the unnamed “she” who is making it hard to speak truth. Enter “The Overly Dramatic Truth,” an epic exploration of doubt on the fringes of a broken relationship. The backing vocals ripple like a finger scratched against underwater nylon and the drums bounce like robotic shocks.
I’ll Sleep When Your Dead is El-P’s transformation from well-read Orwellian Blade Running paranoid, to fed-up New Yorkanoid battle-rapping a city that wants him dead. Book-ending the record is the refrain “this is the sound of what you don’t know killing you,” a statement so arrogant yet painfully true that it begs to be challenged. El-P has made a line in the dirt with this record and he’s standing with his back to everyone else, waiting for a hand on his shoulder or a gun barrel to his neck.