Three hip hop episodes in a row? That must be an all-time high for A Scene In Retrospect! Again, I’ve assembled out dream team of EIN editor David and staff writer Dan, this time to discuss El-P‘s Cancer 4 Cure, which turns 10 years old tomorrow. What fortuitous timing, am I right? This streak really fell into place without much effort, unlike the labor of love my two colleagues put into their pieces on Cancer 4 Cure, both of which you can find below.

Daniel Reiser

Nobody raps like El-P. Somewhere between tinfoil street corner ramblings and dissertation, El-P provides a mix of bravado, intellect, street perspective, and drugged-out conceptualization that’s second to none. No one produces like El-P, either. Take any instrumental track that maniac/brainiac gets his pistol and fists on, and you’re in for a treat. The textured layers morph, shift, and convulse with chaotic glory. It always sounds like a psychic warzone that merges perspective, insight, and harsh realities into a warring juxtapositional beauty. He’s literally one of the best rapper-producers to ever have done it, but had stayed an underdog for so long before Run The Jewels exploded into the mainstream. With his ‘eyes on the future’ perspective, El-P has never quit producing hard-hitting beats from an uncompromising work ethic.

Maybe that’s why this album sounds so goddamn ferocious. For all accounts, El could have thrown in the towel. His glorious underground darling of a record label Definitive Jux shuttered just a few years before, and one of his closest friends, nay BROTHER had tragically passed away too young (RIP Camu Tao). Everything was poised for it, but against the odds, and in beautiful underdog fashion, El-P absolutely owned 2012. After magnificently producing Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music to much critic and fan adoration, El-P followed up just a week later, dropping his solo effort with Cancer 4 Cure, and again, as expected it’s a beautiful hodge-podge amalgam of Brooklyn paranoia.

El-P doesn’t ever really follow rules, or abide by tradition whatsoever. In one article, El-P discusses the profound impact the Purple One had on his life and career, solely because he never followed rules and just made beautiful art. El-P is very much an extension of that school of thought. Any doubt can be clarified by simply listening to C4C opener “Request Denied”. I can still remember my stream of consciousness upon first listen: ‘Oh you wanna make a techno big beat track in 2012??? OK! Oh, so you’re going to fold in some jazz undertones to make it snappy? COOL! Oh, in the middle of the track you’re simply going to fucking drop this goblin fire as if you’re in engaged trench warfare with murder drones and only have 32 seconds to transmit this message?

Live on a hot metal big burner bunsen
Combustion or something and so on, fuck it
See how the wrong side of the tracks
Made the dustedest flash that intellect
Dash to the wormhole, talk shit
Walk with a holy hawk raised
In a dog shit, bitch, click chatter box, duck
I’m a ‘holy fuck what did he just utter’ marksman
Orphan, a whore born war torn, life for the harvest
A fair trade target of air raid, starter kit
Used heart plucked from the bargain bin
I don’t give a fraction or fractal of fucks
I’m a garbage pail kid calamity artist
Pardon the pain puffs, smoke floats ring
Around martyrs, sing along, sat at piano
Lap of my father, watching him talk harmonic
Each key tapped to the BPM of the sirens
Sound like a raining of notes in a protest pose
Like a right string weaved on the keys
Could relieve us of doom
Give the room some silence, stop violence
Pop bounced and a mom with her three survivors
Got gone from the island, hopped to the
County of kings where the bounty of things
Not framed in past might last ’til the hatching
Of manhood’s timing, hop in the timeline
See the turn style young hopper, not for the rock
For the talk good science alliance
Drunk and defiant, sunset started up all night
Crawl through the cracks in the halls
Of the battered up, scattered up
Middle finger dick held brick kids
Screaming at the top of our airbags
‘This is our timing, we are not dying’
Not for you, not for you
Not for you, not for you
Not for you, not for you
Not for you, not for you
Not for you, not for you
Not for you, not for you
Not for you, not for you
Not for you, not, not, not for you

FUCKING COOL, DUDE!‘ It’s an absolutely astounding album opener that lays the groundwork for the rest that follows, but no one was prepared for “The Full Retard”. Although I don’t condone using that slur whatsoever, but in context it fits. Borrowing from the film Tropic Thunder, in which these actors discuss what happens to one’s career once they put too much in and just fucking go for it, El-P is throwing caution to the wind, and loudly claiming ‘fuck it’, and that shit hits so hard. No one ever expected the assist in this ascent of destruction would include a murderous, drug-addled, eye patch-wearing little fucker of a squirrell, but Killums fucking exists (please disregard my conspiracy that he, in fact, as a junkie squirell, is the brainchild behind all of Run The Jewels’ success – that’s a story for another time).

“Drones Over BKLYN” is arguably a dead tie for best track next to “The Full Retard”. There’s something just so catchy about that high-pitched sample with those fucking wild electrified dirty drums that make me anarchistically giddy. It’s all hyper and urgent, feeling dangerous, but not unapproachable. El-P flows (as always) with dense definitive concrete alliteration and double/triple rhymes, then it breaks into the chorus of him vocoder mumbling ‘and I can see them in my eyes when they’re closed, I can feel them at night/I can feel them plot a course through the sky, I believe in their flight‘ before delivering more fucking goblin fire, decrying modern day existence that still plagues us to this day before simply dissolving into more Mad-Max meets Space Quest jazz with little whispers of that little squirrel warning him not to do it, until El defies him and brings it back to finish it out, adding a gnarly guitar solo to boot.

The features are fuckin fantastic as well. The one-two punch of “Oh Hail No” and “Tougher Colder Killer” give Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, Danny Brown, Killer Mike, and coveted rap hermit Despot the perfect runway to engage in this dystopian nightmare. There’s no best out of the four, because each one brings amazing energy that’s equally incomparable for various reasons. It’s some of the best coupling of tracks in rap, even to this day.

While “Oh Hail No” deals in debauchery and reflections of existence, “Tougher Colder Kller” deals with a more serious subject matter of the mental anguish involved with murdering another person. It bounces from a narrative of a soldier having to murder for country to Killer Mike’s counter verse of the war that’s taking place in the streets here in good ol’ America on the daily, before Despot comes in with his haymakers only delivery. All three breathlessly go back and forth in an agitated delivery that is uncompromising and hype as fuck.

El-P is very much working through internal narratives, dealing with worldview perspectives of the system in which he lives in, the reflection sent back to him from said system, along with weird ass scene setting storytelling that defines and solidifies his ability of subjectivity and individuality. “Sign here” flips relationship dynamics into an interrogation dynamic to decent effect, and perpetuates the weird-as-fuck tonality El-P is so comfortable in. “Stay Down” is a ballad to the fun of drug use, and on “For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mums the Word)”, El-P positions himself in sending a not-so-subtle, yet simple message to his abused neighbor: ‘If you kill him I won’t tell‘. That track has deeper context considering El’s personal experiences, which can be heard on season 2, episode 8 of Open Mike Eagle’s What Had Happened Was podcast (which I highly recommend for every goddamn rap nerd on the planet).

The conclusion to this fever dream is a hopeful, yet paranoid dedication to Camu Tao: “$4 Vic/Nothing but You + Me(FTL)”. It’s an endearing closer that doesn’t shy away from expressions of pain El felt in his loss of his best friend, and a really fantastic example of how it feels for the living that choose to do so after losing an important person in one’s life. El-P lyrically reaches out and touches all the ones struggling with empathy and understanding with a source of brevity that’s not seen often enough in the rap game (funnily enough Mr. Lamar reflected such sentiments recently; let’s hope more artists begin to listen).

Overall, Cancer 4 Cure is a very personal record, told in an extremely subjective perspective that leans heavier on expression versus conversion, but if this was the album that converted folks into El-P fans, then they picked a fucking amazing entry, and a fantastic example of why this dude is in my top five favorite rappers of all time. But I’m rather subjective (aren’t we all?), given I’m just another paranoid weirdo empathist trying to make sense of all this shit in the world. I sure am glad El-P is just so fucking gifted in giving that journey a proper soundtrack.

David Rodriguez

El-P is among my short list of white rappers that I like. Why do I make this distinction apparent? Well, you have to understand that there’s a lot of white rappers out there that aren’t, we’ll say, for the culture. We live in a Jack Harlow world currently, and he’s become a symptom of a greater problem that I’ll let Shawn Cee talk about if you’re so inclined. They may like and enjoy hip-hop, even have a technical gift for it, but respect for it comes into question when they take more from the culture than they contribute, or give back in some sort of way. To be clear, I’m not trying to accuse Jack Harlow of this specifically, but it’s a problem nonetheless.

Fuego take time: I don’t fuck with Lord Jamar (Brand Nubian), but there is one thing he’s said that I see truth in: white people are visitors in the house of hip-hop, and as visitors, they must be respectful of the house and it’s reasonable to be held to that expectation. Doesn’t mean they can’t contribute, doesn’t mean they’re not allowed, but there’s certain… rules. Being an avid rap fan, I can generally tell who’s really about it and who’s not. It’s a matter of being genuine in addition to that requested respect, though I will also say it’s not necessarily my place to make that judgment ultimately. I just listen to who I like and keep it moving, roasting who I feel is deserving and praising others for the same reason. I’m concerned with the Elvises out there – to quote the great Chuck D, ‘Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant shit to me’. More often than not, I want to uplift the Chuck Berrys in the art, because that’s who it belonged to in the first place.

Yet here I am. I’ve never had to worry about that kind of stuff with El-P. He has been so vehemently for the culture since his early underground days forming Def Jux and so on. He’s made tremendous effort to put up-and-comers on his shit. He’s just a stone-cold New York cat with a vision he executes on consistently well, trailblazing in a lot of ways over the years. Fuego take part deux: I’d put him above Eminem in terms of white rappers and their quality of impact to the art. Thematically, he’s also got a sharp mind for how things are and how bad they could, and in some cases would, be. He’s… not a happy guy per se. El’s music, from production (his full original name is/was El Producto after all) to lyrics, is aggressively cynical and dark, a cyberpunkian soothsayer as influenced by reality as he is science fiction fare and our own dystopian future hurtling toward us at mach 9.

We were lucky to talk about R.A.P. Music last episode and, well, since that was the genesis of Run the Jewels, and since this album, Cancer 4 Cure, came out just one week after it, it kind of made sense to talk about this album next. Shouts to Dom for staying flexible with the ASIR schedule, because this album rips. It took me quite a while to get into more abrasive and abstract hip-hop, and while I’m still quite picky with who I listen to in those types of spaces, this album’s always been one I return to, liking it more and more as time goes on, but it wasn’t always like that.

Simply put, Cancer 4 Cure was a grower. I was still new to this kind of stuff. Even though this record is quite approachable by El-P’s standards, it’s a far cry from the stuff I frequented back around 2012. But hey, in this post-Death Grips world, just about anything has a shot of catching an ear (I can’t believe The Money Store is also just over ten years old – fuuuuuuuuuck). I caught the now-in-retrospect wildly named single “The Full Retard” on YouTube all that time ago and holy shit, what a slapper (the title’s a reference to Tropic Thunder, and it honestly pales in comparison to songs like this that were mega-hits just years prior, but I say all this in a non-judgmental manner as it’s not my place to judge AAVE to begin with).

Fuck your droid noise, void boys ‘noid ploy
Oi oi, I’ll rugby kick the shit out your groin, boy
Oy vey, the slayers of your harmony porn life
Throat fuck your lucky day, the flight of a torn kite (holy smokes!)
City blown to the bone, the death server
Fit a Hertz with a burner, whip to the church of murder sermon
Just a Cassandra too drained to painfully word it further
Future of a gerbil up ass of masochist, that’s my word up

The cool thing about that song is how much of a fuck it does not give. The beat knocks harder than the cops while still being mechanically quirky with heatwavey synths and noise stabs. El’s lyrics are heady and heavyweight at the same time, throwing haymakers at your jaw until it flies off your face and boomerangs around your skull. It’s really a testament to how grimy and hardcore El can get when he’s in the mood (which is often, just in different ways). The best part about it though is probably the video, which has him and his pal Mr. Killums being about as hedonistic and unhinged as possible in the city, from deviant acts and pranks in the streets to snorting lines in the club, capped off with some old-fashioned drug-fueled murder and self-destructing – literally.

It’s also a cheeky tribute to Camu Tao, a frequent Def Jux collaborator of El-P’s and friend who tragically passed at age 30 from lung cancer, with its prominent vocal sample from “When You’re Going Down” and other little references to his work.

Other bulwarks of New York borough brutality are “Oh Hail No”, which is arguably the hardest-hitting song on Cancer 4 Cure. It’s got a new school boom-bap feel that feels downright murderous and contains two dick-kicking features, one from Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire (now known as Mvthabrain), which is among his best verses ever, and a budding Danny Brown who had just dropped his acclaimed album XXX several months prior. It’s a body check of a track, defiant as ever, and the trio of lyricists must have been eating whetstones like jawbreakers before they went in the booth because their tongues are as sharp as ever here. The hook is simple, but a rallying cry to those that aren’t here to fall in line:

Pocket full of air plus nothing to wear
I’ve been told I was put here to fail
But never ask me to hail
Never ask me to hail
I’m strapped in, shaved head in an electric chair
With a grin going out with a flair
But never ask me to hail

Not to be outdone, Killer Mike and Despot show up on the next track for another elbows-first banger, “Tougher Colder Killer”, the track I referenced a couple weeks ago talking about R.A.P. Music. It sees El-P embody a soldier at war writing a letter to the mother of someone he killed in service in the first verse, detailing how it’s haunted him since and forced a moral quandary that ultimately led him to go AWOL, but not before being taunted by his victim’s last breath speaking of a ‘tougher colder killer’ who he’ll once answer to (El-P’s metaphor for God, though it could just as easily be death itself or another person who gets the drop on him). After this, Mike, Despot, and El trade off mini-verses – about eight bars each – saying some of the hardest shit imaginable, but it’s the highly underrated Despot who steals the show with his two verses, the first of which is my fave, though only marginally:

Motherfuckers don’t know shit
Not the half or the math or the sum or the quotient
Get your cameras in focus to capture the moment
I slap you for poking your nose in
Globe gripped so tight that it’s choking
He got the whole world in his hands – hold this
Pose in a winning stance, don’t get close
Watch me with the telescope you watched the throne with

Other songs are even more thematic and delve into several other aspects of life. Take “The Jig Is Up”, which is a slyly self-deprecating song where El interrogates his partner thinking there’s no possible way she could be here out of love or free will. Surely there’s something afoot – money involved, a spying caper, a powerful entity seeking something from him – and it shows his trademark mind-melting paranoia flipped into a more intimate setting that ultimately is summed up by ‘you’re too good for me’ or ‘I don’t deserve you’, which is kind of cute in a way. It’s worth noting that by this time, El-P had been dating singer and comedian Emily Panic (who also featured on R.A.P. Music) for two years – they got married back in 2018, so I guess the love was real. 🙂

Another standout is “For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mums the Word)”, which is a fictional but all-too-real story about overhearing domestic violence between a man and a woman, and keeping your mouth shut with the cops when the abuser is implicitly dealt with by the victim. The track is Tarantino’d with the interaction with the cops coming in the first verse, with El’s character playing the New Yorker card of minding your own fucking business, insisting he doesn’t know anything about what happened, let alone the people involved (‘Do your job and write it up, but find another motherfucker to harass/I’m getting tired of this redundancy rendition’). In the second verse, he sends a quick message to the woman in the stairwell of their ‘shit constructed hall’, saying ‘do the thing you have to and I swear I’ll tell them nothing’, further backed up by the sing-songy chorus of ‘if you kill him, I won’t tell’. That’s real shit – uncomfortably real for El, who had to witness abuse in his own home as a kid when his mother was abused by his stepfather (detailed excruciatingly on his song “Last Good Sleep”).

Cancer 4 Cure is still El-P’s latest solo project ten years later, having gotten prettyyyyyy busy with Run the Jewels since its meteoric rise. It’s the one project by El I really love – I respect the rest of course, not to mention his work with Cannibal Ox and Company Flow, but none hit as well as this one for me. To me, it was a matter of timing, coming when I was consciously searching for more experimental and underground shit across all genres. To me, it’s one of the best albums that straddle conventional elements to make it more digestible and approachable, and embodying certain aspects of ahead-of-its-time futurism by-way-of depressed, drugged, and eroded society.

“Drones Over Bklyn”, with its jaunty piano line and industrial beat, was (unfortunately) prophetic in predicting the new technological level at which the government would surveil its citizens under the guise of protection and prevention (‘This whole racket’s for the bees, fuck my life already/Fuck the law, fuck the sun, say goodnight already’). It takes that conspiracy theory level mentality of suspicion and dystopia and makes it so, feeling like a movie at times, though it often feels more like Threads than Blade Runner 2049, watching people crumble under the combined weight of centuries of oppression and our collective need to survive and stimulate in the face of destruction.

El-P’s a smart dude, very aware – rap in general is very smart and aware. Even the most hedonistic, reprehensibly violent trap rapper has a lot to say about the state of life in their own pockets of the world, and it’s a perspective that should be valued regardless of your enjoyment of the music. Context and experience is everything, and while El’s work often feels like a downer fever dream of melting concrete jungles and authoritarian regimes stationed on street corners… that’s not far off from our reality. There’s something behind that. It’s not just stories. He’s been a New Yorker all his life as far as I know, and that sort of environment will show you shit you can’t get anywhere else, for better or worse. Rough upbringings will instill a certain outlook with which you bring with you the whole of your life. Your peers and the people you choose to listen to will color the way you see the world and who you side with in our conflict-driven world.

As the curtain begins to fall on Cancer 4 Cure, it’s the last song – technically two – that really ring true. “$4 Vic” makes it apparent that, no matter what form it takes, the future is ours to inherit (‘We are entrusted with the same tomorrow’). He sees a synergy between himself and a powerful, repressive elite where their existence feeds his desire to destroy them in a ‘every hero needs a villain’ sort of way, and while El doesn’t posture as that hero necessarily, he makes it clear as a day fueled by a radioactive sun what position he plays when faced with the ‘cure’ they push:

You’ll always be that special part of me
That loves to dine on grinning void
So flirty touches dizzy lust I must imbibe
And what a team we made
There’s nothing we can’t justify
But I am the son disgust entrusted with the undefined
And I can no longer contain whats under my disguise
I’ve always had the cancer for the cure
That’s what the fuck am I

Building off the chiptune-esque melodies established in “$4 Vic”, “Nothing But You + Me (FTL)” takes it one step further after a short intermission with a sample of the theme song from Metroid, something I’m surprised El got away with considering how litigious Nintendo is (I hope this doesn’t count as dry snitching, but it’s not exactly a secret anymore, and many fans have commented on it before). But it’s what’s said that’s the big takeaway: we’re all united in certain ways even if you don’t believe it, and we’re all we got. We need to find our people that make life bearable.

There’s nothing they would do for you, differently
They’re not even listening
They don’t even glean what we’re existing in
There’s nothing here but love and you
Groveling, look what they’re accomplishing
The systematic gods have all demolished it
But I’ve never felt so brave as when I’m looking at your face
They can decimate my body, but my heart will not disgrace
They can torture and interrogate and shackle to my boot
I will gnaw off my own leg and hop the fuck right back to you

And just like that, we’ve hit on similar themes that Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music touched on. A feeling of community and togetherness, fostered in shared suffering and a common enemy – the same things that Run the Jewels was built on, among other things. Mike and El seemed almost predestined to link up, and their last solo albums were just more proof of that. It’s a full circle completed and made apparent by either artist and just how needed they were as an artistic outlet. I hope to talk about Run the Jewels’ first album in this manner in the future and I get the impression that’ll happen at some point (*winks violently at Dom*).

El-P is just the real deal, similar to Killer Mike. Even when he takes liberties with how he interprets existence in a progressive hellscape that gets off on the suffering of the lower classes, it all has a point and a place, and, unfortunately, sometimes becomes an inevitability. He’s also grown in tremendous ways over the years from the first time I heard him on “Offspring” with Del Tha Funkee Homosapien. He’s now 47(!!!) and showing no sign of stopping. This is great because hip-hop is greater because of his contributions. He’s always been someone to support and fall behind, just as his music urges us to do with each other in its own ways. That’s what it’s all about, and he’s representative of that which will ultimately, perhaps already has, immortalized him.

Dominik Böhmer

Dominik Böhmer

Pretentious? Moi?

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