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Fantastic Damage

El-P’s new album I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead drops today. I haven’t heard it, and truth be told, I’m not sure I’ll go too far out of my way to get my hands on a copy. There’s some artists that you want to listen to, and others you simply don’t—regardless of how much respect you have for them. El Producto has never had a sound that I can get into. I find many of his tracks too sonically dense, too cerebral, too abstract, too dark. His lyrics, on the other hand, fascinate me.

The New York Times ran a big article on the rapper last weekend, positing that El-P is fixated on 9/11 and that his records are an attempt to process the horror, and the despair, and the apocalyptic mood of the times. Apparently the new album picks up where Fantastic Damage left off, with its strung-out, insomniac narrator representing both El-P himself and his traumatized hometown. “I feel like New York needs therapy, man,” he tells the Times. “And I’m one of the people.”

Four years ago—right before the war in Iraq started—I was in New York on assignment for a Vancouver newspaper, writing an article on antiwar rap. I interviewed J-Live (remember “Satisfied”?) and dead prez in person, and then I interviewed El-P over the phone. He was drinking his morning coffee and seemed to be in a reflective state of mind. Things got a little deep when we got around to talking about the insane state of the world. Here’s what he had to say:

I think that we are headed toward the inevitable destruction of our society, period. Roman Empire-style. But what can you do? That is a lot of what my record is about. I am just trying to enjoy the same rights of passage that people before me did. I am trying to grow up, I am trying to fall in love, I am trying to build something for myself, I am trying to figure out how to exist—and I don’t want that to be interrupted. It’s not fair. Unfortunately, that selfish desire and the reality of what’s happening are conflicting. I don’t know what to do. I’ll be honest with you—I really don’t know what to do.

I felt like he captured what so many of us were feeling at the time. He continued:

But I’m not here to bludgeon people with negativity. I see hope and I see beauty. That’s the whole point of the album Fantastic Damage. Out of these things—out of the damage—comes this inspiration. On the one hand I wanted to present you with all of my horrible negative fear. And on the other hand, I wanted to present the reason why the fear of destruction is there. Why else would you fear it unless there were these things that were beautiful? I see a lot of power and a lot of excitement and energy and beauty in our generation.

So many of us are in the clubs, furiously dancing away as the world crumbles around us. [1] It’s no surprise that so many us can’t face the sense of darkness that pervades this era, that we can’t manage to confront what’s happening. You have to admire El-P for being willing to try.


[1] I know, I know. Debbie Downer. But what are you going to do?

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