The skeletal bird on the album cover of El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure was originally designed for him by artist Alexander Calder and has since become, in El’s own words, “a representation of who I am.” The same bird also appears on the cover of his last studio album, 2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, and the contrast between the two depictions is highly suggestive of a transformation in El-P himself. Initially a symbol of luminous expansion—a pulse of light refracted through El’s sigil, reminding the void of a time before universal heat death—the bird was a Phoenix dead and reborn forever, the God Particle of a never-ending Big Bang. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was a Promethean Icarus aiming for the heights of total self-expression: an exercise in unbridled play.
Cancer 4 Cure, on the other hand, strips El-P’s career (nearly two decades in the making) down to its radiant core, polishing his technique and cementing his sound until there’s no room to maneuver—until he has reached and defined his own limitations. But that’s not enough for El. Having amassed, constructed, and refined his musical identity, he does what any great artist would: he smashes it to pieces and makes something better from the shards. Cancer 4 Cure is El-P’s reaching the limits of his own identity only to realize that the glass ceiling can be broken and reworked into whatever the fuck he wants. If I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was an expansion of self, then Cancer 4 Cure is the dismantling and subsequent reorganization of that self—a self that knows better than to try to capture its entirety in one production and, instead, aims to distill and organize its fragments into a flexibly intelligible refraction of the Self: of genius.
Somewhere in-between I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and Cancer 4 Cure, El-P grew up. His perspective elevated, he exudes a confidence previously assumed but unrealized: a security in his vision that allows but in no way clamors for exceptionality, nor pure expression, but somewhere comfortably and malleably in the middle. This is El-P as truly not giving a shit what listeners think, and as a result it’s his least insecure, most accessible production to date. There are no rules, just what sounds good.
R.A.P. music is El-P exceeding the limitations of himself. With Killer Mike’s syrupy vocals, affable swag, and machine-gun flow, El’s able to take his productions to a whole new level. There’s a bounce to the beats, a nightclub humidity echoing sweat, booze, and body heat. It’s a night of some depravity, some regrets, of hazy memories and life-changing moments, alternating between shit-wasted and cross-faded.
This is Kanye West by way of Brooklyn, Jay-Z come The Blueprint 4, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the soundtrack to a David Fincher Notorious B.I.G. I draw the comparison to Kanye and Jay-Z for another reason: where Watch the Throne presented itself as the new gold standard for future rap collaborations, R.A.P. Music actually is. El comes into R.A.P. Music as part of Mike’s team, purely on production (aside from featuring on “Butane”), allowing him to tailor the album’s sound to Mike and give the production a cohesive polish.
And yet, there’s never the feeling that El’s personality is getting lost in the shuffle from soulful crooning to dub-step wobble. If anything, the extent to which the album remains definitively El is a puzzling testament to his genius. How can it simultaneously be a perfect Killer Mike album and a perfect El-P album when the very structure of the album goes to show just how stylistically different the two artists are? But that’s the magic of El-P. There’s El-P(roducto), the producer, and then there’s El-P, the rapper, and Jaime Meline has spent the last two decades mastering both roles, together and apart. His in-depth knowledge of both roles allows him to play one to the maximum benefit of the other, even if he’s not the one playing that other role.