here’s a moment on “The Overly Dramatic Truth,” the ninth track of El-P’s brilliant sophomore effort, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead , when the Brooklyn-born Jaime Meline doesn’t sound like any of the writerly influences critics typically pigeon-hole him with. It doesn’t remind me of Philip K. Dick. Or George Orwell. Or Aldous Huxley. Or [insert your favorite dystopian chronicler here]. It reminds me of the classic work of another great Brooklyn-reared artist, Woody Allen.
In particular, “The Overly Dramatic Truth” and its warning to an unnamed younger woman kept reminding me of the scene in Manhattan where an already 40-something Woody Allen lectures a teenage Mariel Hemingway about how she’s absolutely forbidden to fall in love with him. And it’s not beyond a simple stretch of the imagination to picture the bespectacled Woody, flailing his arms around a well-decorated but small apartment, stealing El-P’s words verbatim, claiming: “This is not my ego talking / I know I’m no perfect draw / And I do love the way you lay there / I like the way we talk / Maybe I’m just condescending / Maybe this thing isn’t wrong / Maybe you should lay right there.”
Granted, El-P’s aesthetic isn’t exactly a laugh riot. I mean, the guy did once release a tour-only LP entitled the We Are All Going To Burn in Hell Megamix (which was outstanding, by the way). But onstage he’s arguably one of the funniest MCs around. The albums might be Woody Allen at his most Interiors-bleak, but get Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif around El, and you get something approaching Bananas. And if you wanna talk paranoia, these two heavyweights can go pound-for-pound. Sure, at dinner with Annie Hall’s family, Woody imagines that her Norman Rockwell-painting kin sees him as a bearded Orthodox Jew. But El-P’s double-vision approaches his landscape with images of “cars slidin’ by with the boomin’ system / Like New York is Fallujah with metal-gear-using Christians.”
With I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, El-P has created a masterpiece, a record both explicit and subtle, simultaneously political and apolitical, a record for a turbulent schizophrenic time where gruesome headlines from Iraq sit side-by-side with news of the Dow skyrocketing and Anna Nicole Smith corpse-raping (give them a minute). Heavily rooted in his NYC cityscape, El dips jittery, a “Brooklyn baby / Waterlocked, walkin’ nervous” with a “gonzomatic fear turning [him] Hunter S. Thompson.” Or to put it in the more Allen-esque terms of the fifth track, “Drive”: “I’m not depressed. I’m just a fuckin’ New Yorker who knows that sittin’ in traffic with these bastards is torture.”
The knock on El-P is that he’s the epitome of “nerd rap.” Or, as one of my Stylus colleagues described it, “fucking spaceship plinky plink sampling accordions and rapping about depression rap.” And granted, like many Def Jux records, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is monolithic and impenetrable on first listen. But with patience and time, its lyrical complexities and Bomb Squad by way of My Bloody Valentine sound grows increasingly more vivid. And in truth, those easy labels just aren’t true. At its core, it’s very much a hip-hop record, with its cavernous booming drums, golden-age worthy story-telling, tightly constructed rhymes, and schemes more intricate and refined than those found on Fantastic Damage.
Ultimately, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead displays a type of artistic growth almost alien to the genre. In hip-hop, artists rarely mature, they just get old and cranky, tossing off nebulous boasts about being “old-school,” or shallow braggadocio about making grown-man rap). El-P is too smart to let his evolution speak for himself. The younger, brasher El-P of five years previous said he’d rather “get mouth-fucked by Nazi’s unconscious” than sign with Rawkus. He titled songs “The Nang, The Front, The Bush, and the Shit.” Now he’s more apt to offer abstract images, like the sci-fi burner “Habeus Corpses (Draconian Love),” which paints an allegorical tale of El and Cage as Abu Ghraib-like guards on a futuristic prison ship.
Allen once said that “life is divided into the horrible and miserable,” and while his words reek of overstatement, it’s not hard to find them somewhat poignant at a time when you can’t open up your newspaper without reading about a never-ending war, a corrupt Attorney General, and a spy-cover-blowing Vice President. It might not be as silky-smooth as a Joplin soundtrack, but the poisoned purity of I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is no less poignant—a rhapsody in bleak.