There are two paths to take when expressing of moods and emotions on an album: diversify or unify. Pop and hip-hop artists are often masters of emotional diversity – on the same album, Lil Wayne can threaten enemies (“You fuck with me wrong, I knock your head off your neck”) on “John,” then get all ooey-gooey with a special someone (See I just want you to know/That you deserve the best”) on “How To Love.” Love songs and I’m-so-sorry songs sound especially soft and romantic next to f*ck-you songs and revenge songs.
But albums with monolithic emotions are unique in their ability to nail one specific feeling, take it to new levels, redefine supposedly simple things like ‘happy’ and ‘sad.’ Fiona Apple’s “Tidal” is to quiet rage what Elliott Smith’s “XO” is to depression; Kanye West’s “Graduation” is to pride what Mumford & Son’s “Sigh No More” is to regret. Derek and the Dominos arguably wrote an entire album, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs”, about jealousy, and there’s never been a better song about fear than “Gimme Shelter.” One of my college roommates had a cutesy poster on her wall illustrating the aphorism “Music is what feelings sound like.” I hated that poster, and its aphorism seems grammatically incorrect, but when music precisely registers and records an emotion, it deserves to exist.
El-P’s latest release, Cancer 4 Cure, is his fifth solo album, not to mention evidence of his complete mastery of anger. Each song is a study of rage: snare-propelled, occasionally militaristic, punctuated with bitter humor and ice-cold choruses. “To the mother of my enemy, I just killed your son,” El-P raps on “Tougher Colder Killer.” “He died with his face to the sky and it can not be undone.” The beat is relentless and the lyrics sound like a script from Criminal Minds.
The first time I listened to the album, an ad for Snow White and the Huntsman played between songs (thanks, Spotify) and I mistook it for the opening to El-P’s next track. It was Charlize Theron’s villainous voice: “You are the only one who could destroy me.” I thought it was a sample. The hiss fit right in to El-P’s sound.
Can anger be mastered? Isn’t anger, by nature, uncontrollable, best expressed by screams and roars or physical violence rather than measured barbs? Only a rapper like El-P, whose flow is impeccable, could voice his anger in perfectly timed bursts. He gets each individual syllable to seethe. All his insults are in 4/4 time. Sometimes he adds pessimism into the mix. “Shoot for the stars, hit the roof/Jump for the shark, get a tooth.” “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue/If I exist right now, I damn sure can’t provide you proof.”
Tracks on Cancer 4 Cure are put-downs, interrogations or invitations to get high and “detach from a white noise planet.” El-P’s anger is focused and persistent, generalized but made specific by language. At first, I mistook it for Bush-era anger, Dead Prez “Hell Yeah”-era anger. But I was wrong – El-P’s anger is the kind of anger you feel after you read the entire newspaper and not just your horoscope, the kind you feel after you watch talking heads interrupt each other on Fox News, hour after hour. El-P condenses that vague political rage into a single, blazing line on space-drone track “Stay Down”: “Telling you these fuckers are shameless/Obama to Reagan/Look at how they bent to their training.”
This is the best thing about Cancer 4 Cure: leaders and followers alike all get a turn in the cross-hairs. El-P would probably rather be a “bullseye for a blind archer” than leave his listeners feeling warm and fuzzy and complacent, and so we have this album to remind us that too much of one emotion is never enough, so long as that emotion has the power to break through and change something.