Decade :: El-P, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2007)


What is it that makes us want to deconstruct art by units of time? Lists. We love making them. We love arguing over them. And here, on the verge of a new decade, we’re in a position to do the same again. What were the best albums of the past ten years?

Here at AD, we started talking it through and decided we weren’t going to add to the cacophony of lists being put out by various music pubs. There are enough of those. Rather, we elected to let our four main writers have a chance to write about any and all of the albums they felt shaped the last decade.

From the beginning of October through the end of December, Monday through Thursday, AD will feature a post, or posts, from a particular writer detailing their favorite albums of the decade. On a given week there might be one album a writer talks about, there might be six, but they’ll get a chance to have their say on everything that comes to mind. Our hope for you, the reader, is that you’ll jump in with your comments on the album selections — tell us why you agree or disagree — and also be exposed to some albums that you may have missed over the last ten years. Now, as the decade starts to wind down, let’s celebrate.

el-pSonically the truest heir to the Bomb Squad’s decade-defining production in the 80s, El-P and his Definitive Jux record label ran the tables on indie hip-hop in the 00s. El-P himself was behind the board for a lot of Def Jux’s best moments, including the stone classic Cold Vein by Cannibal Ox and excellent work by Mr. Lif, Aesop Rock and the Perceptionists. But his own work on his two solo LPs, especially 2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, rank among the finest of the decade. It was here that the penchant for post-apocalyptic sounds and deconstructed beats was finally caught by his ability to craft incredibly infectious songs.

The chaotic, authoritarian environment of America during the Bush administration was a defining mood throughout the 00s. El-P’s production and lyrical content captured the constant anger, frustration, unease and oddly pessimistic hope of this perfectly. The five years between his debut LP, Fantastic Damage, and this album only honed and sharpened the post-modern analysis on display from before. So much of El-P’s perspective reflects some sort of dystopian vision of the world that didn’t sound too far from the truth in the increasingly reality-reflecting-satire of the 00s. “We might have been born yesterday, friends / but we stayed up all night,” he barbs in the chorus of “Up All Night,” as if anticipating the sneering condescension of the old white men responsible for everything wrong while “Run the Numbers” evokes 1984 as he drones “and if the party tells me 5 fingers then 5 is what I’ll say / No matter that the 4 displayed are waving in my face.” Even Abu Ghraib (or Guantanamo) has its future told in the disturbing tale of human love in the face of human torture, “Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love).”

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All of this is done in an unflappably head-nodding way. Much in the same way that Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad never sacrificed the art of the beat in search for the truth of Reagan-era racial and class politics, here, too, some of the most infectious songs are screeds of unrelenting and insightful analysis. “Drive” uses the image of a teenager just anxious to get behind the wheel, no matter the car (“hopped in the hooptie / screamin’ ‘freedom is mine!'”) to create a metaphor about modern America as an interstate full of all manner of bizarre drivers, all the time hitting infectious beat after infectious beat. El-P, too, like Public Enemy, knew how to reach across musical genres to enlist artists who could help evoke the mood required. The Mars Volta’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala (“Tasmanian Pain Coaster”) and Chan Marshall (“Poisenville Kids No Wins / Reprise (This Must Be Our Time)”) each add a distinctive piece to the puzzle, but Trent Reznor’s production and vocals on album single “Flyentology” may be one of the closest things to a Public Enemy/Anthrax pairing you’re going to get and it succeeds, lending the back half of the album its sharpest and catchiest song.

I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead manages to be incredibly of its time and yet still avoid sounding immediately dated. It’s a powerful record full of production that is inventively destructive and endlessly able to build a fortress from the rubble. words/ j. neas

MP3: El-P :: Up All Night
MP3: El-P :: Flyentology

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