The only way I can attempt to pin down a contemporary sound or even the whiff of an outside influence on this album comes immediately on the first track, as if to lull us into a false sense of security: not that the music itself isn’t uncompromising, I must say. El-P, producer/rapper extraordinaire, handles both duties very well, but opens the album by giving us a lengthy musical introduction to his rapping talents. The production is of course typically dark, with deep synth lines and dissonant loops, and the thudding drum beat forming the backbone of the track shows a little more than an influence from some contemporary hip hop/electronic producers like Flying Lotus or (dare I say it) Radiohead. But once this grandiose (And totally appropriate, might I add) introduction is over, the beat completely breaks down to pave the way for a pulsating, terrifying, blue whale-heavy bassline. El-P’s rapping appears, relentless, hungry - it’s definitely his moment. Crafting the rest of the track around skittering drums, disquieting vocal samples and crushing guitar, there’s no doubt what we’re in for here: some tenacious, vicious and deeply rocking music.
The Full Retard is the first single, and one listen to it will give you an idea of how completely bizarre this album is if this was the track the label felt had the most commercial potential. Set off by a brilliant vocal sample (“so you should pump this shit like they do in the future,” so ridiculously appropriate, El-P knows how ahead of his time he is) and a phat dubstep bassline, the track evolves by adding random electronic noises, and old school hip hop samples: a timely reminder of El-P’s timelessness, his legendary past and continual projection into pushing music to its limits both now and in the future. And needless to say the man kills it on the lyrically; his verses packed with subtle disses, braggadocio and more references than an average episode of Arrested Development, he proves (as if we needed proof, oh ye doubters) that his voice and ideas are some of the most commanding on the mic.
With only a few guest spots on the album, and producing the whole thing himself, El-P does allow for both aspects of his creativity and skill to take priority at one time or another. Drones over Bklyn has longer extended instrumental sections (including another long intro and an extended outro) of deep, deep basslines, distorted guitar and crashing, reverb-drenched cymbals, the fragmentation of one’s mind, the disintegration of all that is holy, battling with the ghosts, trying to keep everything together… El-P has admitted that this album is about “darkness…ultimately not giving into it… struggling with that darkness.” And unlike a few album concepts that fail to work, this one works perfectly because of El-P’s deviant, paranoid lyrics, his angry, but not preachy voice, his sinister beats, and the polygamy of the three. And of course the “futurist” sound that El-P has always associated himself with is prevalent here as much because of his lyrics as in the highly unorthodox production which seems a thousand years in the future and very avant-garde, yet polarisingly manages to remain very much grounded in hip hop.
As the album draws to a close, deeper synth/organ beats and crushing drums really form the majority of the beats, all Apocalypse Now and Tangerine Dream and Blade Runner and whatnot. We’re entering into a world more paranoid and from which escape seems like less and less of a possibility. The nihilism and struggle becomes more and more pronounced, musically – Stay Down, the penultimate track, is based around an undulating, constant bassline that doesn’t even change until about a minute in, it just sits there ominously in the background, a casual observer of the destruction around it, witnessing the shards of guitar, drums rolls and bursts of frantic trumpet skirt freakishly across the track in panic. El-P’s lyrics delve more and more into the realms of his struggle with darkness – his paranoia and isolation emphasised by repeating the old Groucho Marx adage “I wouldn’t want to be part of any club that would have me,” [as a member] playing the role of an interrogator in the track Sign Here and using his power in a The Wall type imagination for sexual deviousness, lying to the police to help a woman get revenge on her abuser in For My Upstairs Neighbours. However, as he rightly stated of the album, it’s about the struggle with darkness, but ultimately resisting it. $ Vic/FTL (Me And You) is still a somewhat disturbing composition, but ultimately El-P has enough good things to say about the world to know he’s going to make it: “Something good that I'd die here for, Something great that I'd live here for,” and I think for his upbeat conclusion I can forgive him for rhyming “for” with “for” across 2 lines.