Cancer 4 Cure’s closest analogue may be Portishead’s Third: the textures and tones are distinctly different from past releases, but it’s unimaginable that it could be made by anyone else. El-P has described the record as fight music abstracted. To be more specific, it’s fight or flight music. Primal response mechanism rap. And like any good storyteller, his narratives are rooted in conflict. On “Tougher Colder Killer”, El-P inhabits the mindset of a soldier haunted by post-traumatic stress, who made “his enemy dig his own grave at the point of a gun.” “For My Upstairs Neighbor” finds the protagonist getting grilled by cops about a domestic violence situation in his apartment building. He tells “Columbo” nothing, but later confronts the abuse victim in the stairwell and whispers to her, “do the thing you have to and I swear I’ll tell them nothing.” Meanwhile, “Works Every Time” is a drug dealer dialectic between the urge to self-medicate and the consequences of the obliteration.
The closest thing the record has to a love song is “The Jig Is Up”, where the hook uses the words of Groucho Marx to describe a relationship: “I wouldn’t want to be a part of any club that would have me.” Even “Sign Here”, a song grappling with sexual power issues uses an interrogation room as a metaphorical backdrop. You don’t need me tell you that it’s heavy. It’s a record from El-P, a man who could make Pollyanna see poltergeists. But to balance out the hangman’s tension, there’s “Drones over BKLYN” and “The Full Retard”, two clavicle-cracking rants reminiscent of the old El-P, with rhymes “short and fat like Joe Pesci” that would “slap you out of your fucking shit.”
The beats. The synths sound like they’ve been stolen from a bargain bin on Alpha Centauri, stocked with futuristic workout anthems for robot soldiers. Listening to it in daylight hours can make you feel allergic to sunlight. Most rumble at 130 to 140 BPM and feel uniquely congruent with and ahead of the times. After all, the producers at L.A.’s Low End Theory and the early London dubstep architects all owe a small but significant debt to El’s experiments with negative space and bone-chipping bass.
What grounds the record is a scarcely subliminated obsession with death. Dedicated to Camu Tao, whose demise directly preceded its creation, the characters are forever warring with some imminent end, whether creative, romantic, or literal. It’s rare when re-inventions seem so deliberate but unselfconscious. And through the struggle it gains a certain scarred freedom. It’s simultaneously able to stand alone but alongside that trademark blend of sneering New York City skepticism. It sheds the bullshit of the past and is stained with the weary residue of an incalculable number of cigarettes, weed deliveries, bodega runs, and blind turns. It’s the best kind of tribute El-P could make: a record that you can pump like they do in the future. (PITCHFORK)