Anyone who's down with the underground hip-hop scene nowadays should be more than familiar with El-Producto. The psyche-flow mastermind with a knack for portraying the times spits caustic words that are much more than just rhymes. Just as his profound lyrical prowess has certainly influenced me (as is shown by my previous sentence), it has carried over into the entirety of the music community. After splitting from his first label, Rawkus Records, whitey went and established his own domain, the present-day Mecca for obscure hip-hop: Definitive Jux Records. With his intuitiveness and unorthodox approach to the genre, El-P eventually drew in everybody who's somebody in the underground rap scene. That's no exaggeration; Cage, Mr. Lif, Murs, Aesop Rock, and RJD2 all call Def Jux home.
What really put El-P on the map, however, was his siren-song-for-the-counter-culture debut, 2002's Fantastic Damage. The gripping yet paranoid record was both an unfortunate harbinger of the future and a frank reminder of the tragic near past of 9/11. While much of America was up in arms with the idea of flag-flying for the first time in years, El-P was busy crafting his bleaker than bleak masterpiece that would finally solidify the hopelessness and sobriety that resided just behind the hyper-patriotic sentiments in many of our minds.
I'll Sleep When You're Dead follows Fan Dam's same basic formula: cacophonous, multi-layered sampling behind the trenchant floetry of the light-skinned pitbull. Only this time it's slightly more textured and slightly less pointed in delivery. Also unlike his previous album, El-P recruits an all-star cast of guest appearances, ranging from Def Jux pals Aesop Rock and Cage to full-blown superstars like Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala (The Mars Volta), and the revered queen of women's rock, Chan Marshall (Cat Power).
The pretentious prog kings of Volta appear on the album opener, "Tasmanian Pain Coaster", a sort of preface to the general grime-chronicling El-P will do throughout the record. Reeling through his anything but stock rhyme book, the rapper chides at the most menial of downers of contemporary society, including the thriftiness of mass transit systems ("Metro card like 'you get what you pay for, stupid'"), leading him to the unfortunate realization that "the whole design got my mind crying." This Conor Oberst-meets-Immortal Technique emo-flow is prominent throughout the whole record; a style that is generally undeniably compatible with El-P's signature melodramatic dystopia craft. Lines like "My generation is carpoolin' with doom and disease," from the off-kilter banger "Drive" serve to seriously wake any listener up, and very much succeed in doing so. The soppiness is both a blessing and a curse, though. In "The Overly Dramatic Truth", lines like "you deserve the ignorance and bliss I still wish I had," discredit the album's true diamonds of stinging poignancy.
All in all, I'll Sleep When You're Dead is more than a worthy sophomore effort from the king of indie-hop, El-P. Hopefully it'll be quite a long time before we pass on and put the rapper to sleep though, because another few records would be very much appreciated.