When I got El-P’s new album in the mail a few weeks ago and saw the tracklisting, I couldn’t help but think the worst – or the best, depending on how you look at it.
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead has 13 tracks on it, of which 9 include guest vocals. In addition to fellow Def Jukies Aesop Rock, Cage, Camu Tao and Murs, as well as cracka-ass cracka fellow travelers such as Slug from Atmosphere, the album also includes guest appearances by the likes of Trent Reznor, two of the guys from the Mars Volta, Chan Marshall a/k/a Cat Power, and Matt Sweeney, who was in Billy Corgan’s incredible though short lived post-Smashing Pumpkins outfit Zwan. (Don’t front.)
Not to reveal too much about myself, but I’ve been a big fan (both literally and figuratively) of all of the aforementioned artists – especially Chan Marshall, who could very well be history’s greatest argument in favor of white women – at one point in time or another. But not so much in a hip-hop context. I mean, it’s one thing when El-P’s new BFF Diddy goes and recruits the likes of Keyshia Cole and homegirl from the Pussycat Dolls for his album, but I could do without all that on my El-P album, thank you very much.
And of course I couldn’t help but think that all of these guest appearances were designed to make the album that much more appealing to d-bags such as myself, who listen to just as much, if not more, rock than hip-hop these days anyway. In fact, I’m pretty sure this is the case – how else to explain all of the promotional material for this album with Trent Reznor’s name all over it – but the weird thing about I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is that it’s hardly the train wreck you’d expect. More often than not, you hardly even notice the guest appearances.
As El-P himself explained in a story in this week’s Village Voice, he’s taken to “sampling” his indie rock friends the same way another hip-hop producer might work with old soul or funk records.
“I really don’t like looking at the back of a record and seeing the word featuring a million times,” says Brooklyn rapper–producer–label overlord El-P. [...]
“I’m a hip-hop producer,” [El-P] explains. “I sample. And now I can just sample people. I get to bring them in and use them and twist them to my advantage. I just wanted to do it and not be a douchebag. But I didn’t go out of my way to hide them.
The result? I wouldn’t describe the sound of I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead as being altogether different from 2002′s Fantastic Damage. There were times where I felt like the rap music was being drowned out by the layers of post-apocalyptic racket, but that’s probably what he was going for anyway. And it’s true that, like many great albums, there’s a learning curve to it in the sense that it makes a lot more sense the fifth time you listen to it than the first time you hear – which is not to say that you have to be a genius or particularly smart to like I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. Hell, I enjoy it.
Most of the complaints I’ve read re: ISWYD have had to do El-P getting increasingly emo in his rappin’. You’ll recall that Fan Dam had that one song “Stepfather Father” where he worked out some of his daddy issues and this album has a few that go that song one further. Again, this is obviously be design, but I could see how the effect could be jarring. “The Overly Dramatic Truth” in particular I think crosses the line as far as what’s typically allowed as emotional content in hip-hop (i.e. daddy where have you been?). Personally, I found it refreshing (nullus), but your mileage may vary.