If you don't believe that underground hip-hop is enjoying a serious renaissance right now, just listen to El-P's brilliant solo debut, Fantastic Damage. Maybe "enjoying" is the wrong word: The oh-so-appropriately-titled album doesn't sound like it's enjoying much of anything, save for the ruin of listener-friendly mainstream rap. But that appetite for destruction doesn't mean the record won't send shivers down listeners' spines.
New York producer El-P--Jamie Meline to his mother and father, El Producto to his non-abbreviating friends--first came to prominence with his group Company Flow, which tore a ragged hole in hip-hop's complacent façade in the late '90s. After that act's demise in 2001, El-P founded the Def Jux label, which quickly achieved a near monopoly on underground cred via albums by Cannibal Ox and Aesop Rock. El-P's abrasive production style, thick with clogged-artery bass lines and acidic rock samples, largely defined the label's take-no-prisoners aesthetic, even gaining the attention of Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha, who asked El-P to co-produce part of his upcoming solo debut.
In the midst of Fantastic Damage's sludgy production, El-P's vocals stand front and center, like a sea monster rising from the muck. His lyrical style--more bark than flow--avoids empty boasting in favor of apocalyptic diatribes, lacing his raps with a little Swiftian wit. "Stepfather Factory," for instance, is a modest proposal in the form of a press release from a company that's manufacturing cyborg stepfathers. The domestic promise turns dystopian as the "perfectly realistic and even somewhat institutionally respected robotic relative" reverts to form, turning into a booze-swilling beast that's as disappointing as the real thing. The song's harsh, to be sure, but El-P delivers the doom and gloom with acerbic humor.
Better yet, the artist's bombast never keeps him from being catchy. "Deep Space 9mm," one of the album's singles, is thick with bells and guitars, employing an irresistible hook that'll have you trying in vain not to sing the chorus in public: "I'll be right here holding my nuts/Right here holding my nuts." OK, so Michelangelo he ain't.