There’s a moment two-thirds of the way through Cancer For Cure‘s second song, “The Full Retard,” where a childish, angelic girl’s voice cuts in — disrupting the track’s gritty beat — to talk about a utopian future where “children of every race, creed, and religion frolic” together. It’s an ideal image of unity. And a drum like a machine gun kicks in and cuts it to ribbons, while El-P repeatedly sneers the line “lil bitch.” Later, in the middle of “Tougher Colder Killer,” Killer Mike rants at his enemies between verses, barking about how “your dad’s should be ashamed to raise your asses,” that they’d have been better raised in broken homes, because they have only been made into “tougher colder pussies.”
Neither of these examples have anything to do with lyrics, but they tell us a lot about Cancer For Cure, an album that is not nearly as dark as its predecessor, 2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, but is twice as angry. It’s an album about breaking things down, about forgetting unity and cohesion and instead about putting gashes and cracks into any elements of control around you. El-P isn’t trying to make things better here; it’s not about solutions, and it’s not about playing well with others. Instead, as the title implies, it’s about an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ and that we’re better off fragmented, on the fringe, rotting out the solutions ‘they’ have posed because, well, they’re not for us.
There’s all kinds of elements of control to be found on Cancer For Cure. There’s the not-so-unfounded police state paranoia of “Drones Over Bklyn,” or the other kind of drone — a lover posited as the low-level mindless worker type — that El-P takes cold aim at on “The Jig Is Up.” On the chilling “Sign Here,” El-P even takes the hip-hop sex jam and turns it on its ear, morphing it into a troubling, robotic image of one person controlling another. It’s not about love at all, but worse it’s not even about physicality, only dominance. “Tougher Colder Killer” may be the hardest of these pills to swallow, as El-P spits a verse as a guilt-ridden soldier who has killed under orders and can’t deal with it. He’s struck by the conviction of his victim — “at the end he just grinned and bowed” — and the verse is a letter to the killed soldier’s mother, an unraveling as much as it is an apology. The weight of guilt there makes verse by Killer Mike and Despot — violent depictions of soldiers killing with mindless impugnity — all the more haunting.
It’s also a song that sticks because, unlike the spoken-word dirge of “Sign Here” or “The Jig Is Up,” both of which are tough listens — “Tougher Colder Killer” is a brilliant grinder. Where most of Cancer For Cure outdoes its predecessor is how, while the subject matter is bitter and heavy, the beats themselves are hard charging. They’ve got all the sci-fi claustrophobia of El-P’s previous beats, but he’s refined his style over time, gotten better at all that busted-up clutter, and made his most focused set of beats to date.
The tracks themselves reflect the fractured vision of the record. The beat below all the sounds is heavy on bass, hits hard and with purpose — this is clear right away on the fiery, dancefloor pounding of opener “Request Denied” — but the parts over it are broken and cut up, loosely mosaic rather than meshed together. Piano chords ring out in angular chunks and then fade. More than once, a voice is cut up and reshaped over a track. “True Story” clips vocals from Das Racist’s Heems at the end of El-P’s lines, while, more poignantly, the hook on “The Full Retard” — “So you should pump this shit, like they do in the future” — is a phrase spit by the late Camu Tao, El’s friend and fellow Def Jux artist. It’s hard not to think of Tao in other moments here, like “$4VIC,” when El spits, with a deep frustration, about how “there were ghosts here, there’s a presence, there’s a power.”
So under the fractured themes, there is a lot of the past, both the loss and comfort to be found there — see the childhood memories of “Request Denied” — but there is little in the way of catharsis. The parts never mesh into a stronger whole. Even the guests here sound like they’re all on different wavelengths. “Oh Hail No” features a blistering turn from Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire and a typically oddball verse from Danny Brown that have nothing to do with each other, let alone El’s verse that came before them. Brown’s verse is on its own island, over a new dragging beat that sounds different from the propulsive beginning of the song, eX focuses on his usual hang-ups: sex, drinking, food. Killer Mike and Despot are downright oppositional to El on “Tougher Colder Killer,” and these guests give us an interesting turn on the typical hip-hop cameo. Instead of presenting a united front, guests break up the record further. Rather than including a like-minded rapper like Aesop Rock on Cancer For Cure, El-P brought in fresh MCs, ones he respects but don’t quite fit with his aesthetic (Killer Mike possibly excluded, as evidenced by R.A.P. Music), so what we get is not a singular vision of hip-hop, but a wide-open cross-section.
Of course, this disjointed feel is, counterintuitively enough, what makes Cancer For Cure such a complete and cohesive listen. The songs stand on their own — “The Full Retard,” “Oh Hail No,” “Tougher Colder Killer, and “Drones Over Bklyn” are all contenders for best hip-hop song of 2012 — but the overall effect of the album is what is so powerful. It helps that El-P’s thorny rhymes are in top form here, so even if he spits too fast to keep up through a few listens, and even if his verses are biting and hard, he never loses sight of the energy and entertainment of hip-hop. The same guy who would “rather wash [his] dick in acid than ask what you think” also references Airplane, Step Brothers, and other pop culture references that keep the record from falling too far down a dark rabbit hole.
The true brilliance of Cancer For Cure is its refusal to find common ground, to come to the middle and meet anyone. You have to come to this record — even if it’s a damn rewarding approach — it will not come to you. In this way, El-P has recaptured something that has been lost in the internet age: a counterculture.
With the internet has come to age of consensus, and while it’s a place for differing ideas and (usually surface) discourse and debate about them, there’s no real way to live on the fringe, to completely oppose popular ideas or practices without being left on the sidelines. Even the success of the Arab Spring was merely aided by social media in terms of organization, the ideas were that of a growing angry population, one that used to be, but was no longer, an ignored and frustrated minority. Cancer For Cure says to hell with consensus, and to hell with working with ‘them’ (whoever they are) to make things better. The solution, if there is one, is much more personal or communal. We’re not fixing what’s broken, El-P seems to imply all over this record, so we need to break it more. Even if my ‘we’ and your ‘we’ are breaking down different levels of control, or breaking them in different ways.
“I’m the cancer for the cure, that’s what the fuck am I,” yells El-P towards the end of the record, and the closing music on “FTL (Me and You)” represents perfectly the busted-up revolution the album presents. There’s a huge clapping of hands that sounds like an army marching, marching with purpose, but between claps the bass skitters, like so many heartbeats, heartbeats that don’t quite align, even as they fade out, heading in the same direction.