El-P – I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2007)

Headphones are strongly recommended to fully enjoy this album

With ‘I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead’ El-P proves once again he is at the forefront of experimental hip hop production. Aided with guest verses by many of his Def Jux colleagues… And others (like the famous Trent Reznor appearance) El-P delivers an album that is at least on the same level as Fantastic Damage, if not better.

Many of the albums released from the Def Jux label are very dense lyrically and difficult to pierce on the first listen, this album is no exception… But, like most Def Jux albums, after a few listens the album and with a bit of thinking, you should find yourself immersed in it.

The first major draw of this album is obviously it’s top tier production, El-P has really earned his title as one of the best producers out there. The production on ‘I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead’ is a bit more dense than his earlier work, with much more layering work… But what would El-P be if he wasn’t taking risks with his music and creating something new? Regardless, El-P’s take on production here comes off perfectly, winning him an easy ten out of ten for the production.

Though El-P’s production is the first and most obvious draw… He doesn’t disappoint when it comes to lyricism. While El-P’s lyricism might take a bit more work to fully appreciate, it is well worth the effort. Some might blast El-P’s newer work as softer, confusing a more mature approach for a weak one… Make no mistake, El-P is still just as angry and just as misanthropic as you might remember in his early work. In fact, it could be said this album is too bleak at times. No one expects good times and kittens from a Def Jux record, but the sheer wall of sarcastic insults and angry rants might come off as too much to some listeners. One more problem that I feel has plagued El-P all through his career, is his tendency to try to rap against a beat at times; it can become a bit distracting if you’re trying to follow his lyrics.

All in all I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is a great album, the few flaws are overshadowed by the amazing production and how downright interesting the album is. Be it the experimental production layered over the track Tasmanian Pain Coaster, or the tragic love story El-P and Cage share with the listener on ‘Habeas Corpses’ and it’s amazing use of negative space. If you’re like me, you might have grown tired of the same thing over and over again in hip hop… Well, this is far from the same old, same old, and that’s its biggest strength as an album.

Best Tracks: Tasmanian Pain Coaster, Habeas Corpses, League of Extraordinary Nobodies

Overall: 94


Holocaust – Blue Sky Black Death Presents: The Holocaust (2008)

If you know anything about The Holocaust, then you know he is anything but a typical MC. For better or for worse, Holocaust (aka Warcloud, aka Robot Tank) is a very distinct rapper.

First and foremost, this album is not something most people will enjoy on their first listen, while the beats are done amazingly, Holocaust’s experimental ‘flow’ is very off putting at first. In some songs it sounds as if he isn’t even trying to stay on beat, instead going off into strange tangents about everything and anything. Holocaust’s lyricism seems to favor a very abstract and free association form of story telling. Saying anything more on the theme of his music would be impossible, as he changes the theme up in just about every song (sometimes in the middle of the song).

Some of the more memorable verses seem to deal with popular literature and legends, for example, his song ‘No Image’ seems to be painting a rather vivid scene from the novel ‘I Am Legend’ (yes like the movie, except the book wasn’t terrible) in other songs he raps about ancient Greek legends or even the Pied Piper of Hamelin. To his credit, every song manages to put strong images in your head. Sometimes it’s just hard to tell what you’re seeing.

Now on to the biggest draw of the album, the production. Yes, the production. Blue Sky Black Death has never been one to disappoint on beats, and the dark, almost symphonic beats they provided for this album were simply perfect. These beats retain a very atmospheric feel, favoring deep chords and piano keys, almost coming off as classical compositions. The beats really are good enough to be carry an album on their own, in fact, they were even released by themselves as an instrumentals version of the album… And considering the very real possibility that Holocaust’s disjointed flow may never grow on some of you, it’s probably a good thing.

All in all, this album is not the best album you’ll ever hear, it’s definitely not one of the most accessible either… But what it has going for it is it’s a very interesting album. It’s worth at least a few listens, just to see if you’re one of the people who can acquire a taste for it’s, admittedly, very odd style.

Best Tracks: No Image, God Be With You, The Ocean
Worst Tracks: Killer Moth, Lady of the Birds

Overall: 63/100

The Roots – Undun (2011)

While Undun might not be the single best album The Roots have ever put out, it is easily capable of sitting alongside their greatest albums. Of course, this is to be expected by The Roots, their reputation as one of the most consistent hip hop groups of all time is well earned.

Undun is a concept album portraying the life and death of the semi-fictional character Redford Stephens , starting at his death and rewinding from there. The protagonist as it were is portrayed as a man torn between living an honest life and living one filled with fast money and crime. Obviously he chooses the latter, and ends up paying for it with his life.

The production style of Undun seems to be working with an experimental jazz sound blended perfectly together with a 70s R&B sound. The beats manage to maintain an overall bleak sound, without coming off overbearing. Each song’s beat speaks volumes about the mood of the protagonist, from the angry rebellious feel of ‘Stomp’ to the optimistic and joyous feel of ‘Kool On’, even the resigned feeling of finality that accompanies the song ‘Sleep’. Towards the end of the album, Undun moves to an Avant-Garde feel however, blending together multiple short instrumental tracks mixing together piano keys and classical compositions.

While the album has top notch production, the production is not the main draw. Black Thought’s prowess as an MC is often overlooked, he has proven time and time again that he is able to tell a story like no ones business. While his flow might not be as flashy as some other MC’s, Black Thought’s wordplay and double entenedres should be more than enough to make any fans of good lyricism giddy. He demonstrates this quite well in the beginning of the song ‘Stomp’ with the lines, “Yeah, speaking to pieces of a man/ Staring at the future in the creases of my hand.” In this line, the protagonist seems to be reflecting on the murder he had just committed (literally leaving a man in pieces) while referencing the song ‘Speaking to Pieces of a Man’ he ponders his future that he holds in his palm, referencing palm readings while referring to the gun he was holding in his hand that he sees as his future. While Black Thought’s verses act as the backbone of the album and as Redford’s main voice, the multiple guest features do a great job of reflecting the internal conflict within the protagonist, each guest artist bringing a valuable perspective to the album.

The album really has no tracks that need to be skipped, though the hook on ‘Lighthouses’ drags it down a bit, making it the weakest song on the album… It still carries it’s own. The only true weakness of the album is it’s length. At just under 40 minutes it leaves you wanting a lot more. It’s length is perhaps the only thing holding Undun back from being considered an instant classic. Despite this, Undun stands firmly as one of the best albums of the year, if not the best.

Best Tracks: Stomp, Kool On, The Otherside

Overall: 88/100

Cage – Movies for the Blind (2002)

After hearing the intro to this album, you should quickly pick up on the fact that this isn’t the average hip hop album. Love it or hate it, Movies for the Blind is an album that has it’s own sound. With a chilling beat playing, Cage addresses the audience with a homage to the movie ‘A Clockwork Orange’ for the first, but not the last time in this album.

Most of the album is produced by one DJ Mighty Mi, who does a great job of making beats that compliment Cage’s dark and gritty style, while Cage in returns compliments the beats by doing a great job of rapping with the beats instead of over them like some of his associates *cough* El-P *cough cough*. While DJ Mighty Mi does a good job handling the production of the album, the most memorable beats are handled by others, such as the song ‘In Stoney Lodge’ produced by J-Zone, ‘Teenage Death’ produced by Camu Tao, ’Among the Sleep’ handled by RJD2, and of course, the underground classic ‘Agent Orange’ produced by Necro. The production on this album is very very consistent leaving only one song on the list to be skipped. On the song ‘CK Won’ the production seems just a bit too frantic, while Cage’s verses seem to be just as good as they can be, the beat clashes with them a bit too much. It could also be argued that the chorus grates after repeated listens.

As far as lyricism, Cage delivers exactly what you’d expect, except better. A very dark humor that could only be drug up from the mind of Cage. The first full song on the album ‘Escape to 88’ jumps into his mind with the lyrics “Welcome to a piece of brain tissue, my brain’s lungs/ Filled with octane, like liquid that came from/Some silly, said her tits sellin illy/Really? By the jar? Pump the car full of grey jelly.” Cage doesn’t let up with his disturbed humor, continuing to swing the lyrical axe at whomever he see’s fit, from MTV to Eminem.

Cage is lyrically on point throughout the entire album. This is, sadly, quite rare in most albums nowadays. From the song ’In Stoney Lodge’ and it’s almost amused retelling of his stay in a mental institute as a child, to ’The Soundtrack…’ and it’s gleeful fantasy story of him murdering his stepfather who put him in said mental institute, and while Cage seems to excel at telling his stories with a disturbed happy twist, he seems to really shine through when he let’s himself get as gritty and dark as he can possibly get. This is exemplified in the song ‘Among the Sleep’, where Cage tells a twisted tale (which I’ve always assumed to be a morbid introspective on his life) through a bad PCP trip. Cage also proves once again how he can shine in a group environment, with his posse cut ‘Unlike Tower 1’. The song features him, Mister Eon and Copywrite, all members of Cage‘s group ‘The Weathermen‘… And all of them delivering great verses, with an amazingly well done hook. It should be more than enough to whet your appetite for more Weatherman appearances

Lastly, I’ll address the most popular and well known song on the album, the famous ‘Agent Orange’. The song came out well before the album, though it was cleaned up considerably for the album, it also had the lengthy into shortened, as well as the outro cut. The song is perhaps one of Necro’s best beats to date, and arguably one of Cage’s best songs. The song is built around a Clockwork Orange sample and starts off with an intro that is almost verbatim from the novel. The song itself is full of twisted punch lines and references… The Liquid Swords sample really does say it all about the song. “They said his brain was infected by devils.”

Overall, Movies for the Blind is a great album, Cage at his best. He rarely steps out of his comfort zone of dark visuals and humor here, but why would you want him to? He does it so well. The production is great and his lyricism is better, only having one skippable track leaves 13 other great ones (and 3 skits with an intro) which is great considering most albums now only have 3 to 4 good songs on them (you know who you are). This album makes it clear that Cage’s reputation as an eccentric genius is well earned.

Best Tracks: In Stoney Lodge, Among the Sleep, Agent Orange, A Suicidal Failure

Overall: 92/100