t has been said (very perceptively, I might add) that hip hop was the first underground music genre that fully embraced capitalism as the music gained popularity. Now hip hop has become a cottage industry of sorts. Almost every rapper has his own label (to promote his friends, as well as make some money from their sales), and many have clothing lines. These labels churn out album after album, spending far more time and money on promotion than the actual product. Battling over rhyme skill has practically disappeared: the size of your car’s rims is more important than your ability to spit a verse.
Underground hip hop thrives on criticizing these perceived failings. However, the attacks are anemic and pointless; often they grow incredibly tiresome. What indie rappers don’t understand is that mainstream bling-blingers are just making the system work for them. It’s not that Master P wants to make bad music. The current consumerist climate lets him make money making lazy tripe. So he does.
That’s probably one of the main reasons the Def Jux label is so potent: CEO El-Producto sees that the problem is bigger than hip hop: it’s systemic. His solo album is not a criticism of the state of hip hop; it’s a criticism of the state of the current American political and cultural climate. Fantastic Damage covers a wide variety of topics in inventive ways, from the dehumanization of capitalism (“Dead Disnee”) to increasing government control (“Accidents Don’t Happen”), from lost love (“T.O.J.”) to child abuse (“Stepfather Factory”). El-P’s flows are fast and word-filled, often delivered in a rapid, caffeinated burst of verbiage that threatens to spin out of control. El-P doesn’t have the best delivery on the block, but he makes up for that with lyrics full of meaning and metaphors.
Of course, El-P is known for his production, not necessarily his rapping. For those who loved the dense, gritty analog funk of The Cold Vein should be more than pleased. El-P maintains his signature style of mechanistic Blade Runner synths and Bomb-Squad-style bombast and layering. Things are much more complex this time around: the beats take on a musical life of their own instead of merely acting as a platform for rappers. The song structures are incredibly complex (and not just for hip hop). “Delorean” starts out with a paradoxically sparse-yet-complex beat similar to the production on The Cold Vein, with a fuzzed-out guitar loop. Two minutes in comes an incredible turntable breakdown by DJ Abilities, made even better by post-production overdubs and reverbs. Fantastic Damage treats the turntable as an instrument that can be manipulated in the studio to mesh into the working of a song. Abilities provides many harsh, chunky cuts for the album, and comes out as an essential presence.
Just the layers of songs like “Deep Space 9mm” attest to El-P’s studio wizardry, but the fact that he can turn a conveyor belt beat, eastern-flavored piano loops, sirens, beeps, and textual turntable cuts into a cohesive, interlocking song that never just loops easily puts him on the forefront as one of the most forward-thinking producers out there. Never content to rest on his unique style, El-P offers up innovation after innovation. “The Nang, the Front, the Bush, and the Shit” is a jam in two movements: the first a haunting stuttery funk, with El-P assuming the role of military pitchman, selling the soldier image; the second an urgent shift, with jazz-sampled drum breaks and a wall of distorted guitar, portraying war as it really is. It’s not news that war is in fact hell, but by juxtaposing the contemporary methods the military uses for recruitment (money for college, patriotism, civic pride), El-P constructs an incisive criticism on how the government deceives its citizens.
The disc’s most potent metaphor is “Stepfather Factory,” in which El-P connects corporate control, consumerism, and the breakdown of the family into one narrative. El-P raps from the point of view of a carnival barker, selling robotic replacements for fathers. “Mothers - how many times have you debated sub-euthanasia tablets for breakfast snacks / When restlessness attacks seemingly at random? / With an emptiness inside that's hard to identify, maybe / Pursuing obvious like pill-popping / Chances are you've been abandoned.” The second verse is a disclaimer for the product, culminating in the warning of a “possible act / of physical aggression towards you and your loved ones fleshy surfaces.”
Describing everything contained in Fantastic Damage is practically impossible. Suffice to say, it’s one of the most engrossing and innovative hip hop albums I’ve ever heard, and it gets better with every listen. Its one weakness is “Dr. Hellno and the Praying Mantis,” which fails to astound on the production (repetitive) or the lyrical content (volleys of misogyny from Vast Aire, El-P, and another rapper). But this hardly detracts from the stunning post-apocalyptic world of the rest of the album. El-P is a true visionary: this may be the Kid A of hip hop.
Reviewed by: Gavin Mueller
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01