"I'm not writing about politics. I don't give a fuck about that shit. I'm trying to write songs about getting from the train station to home without crying."
Jaime Meline, better known as El-P, didn't say those words to me. He said them to Wired, but when I read the quote, it stuck. I caught the rapper and producer when he was still in Brooklyn, spending time with his cat in the studio before hitting the road. When I ask about the quote, we discuss his approach to the human condition and he lands it: "I have the same questions as everyone else. I am just a fucked-up guy. I am fucked up by those questions."
Cancer4Cure, El-P's ambitious new Fat Possum release and first album in five years, is shaped by the futuristic tones and sonic mazes that marked his previous work. I admit the album is a bit of a mind-fuck for me, though I mean that as a compliment. Every time I listen, I hear something new. It's an exciting user experience, dense with possibilities. El-P's work has always flirted with excess in this way, but I wonder how, with his particular aesthetic, he ever knows a track is complete.
It's not the easiest thing to know when I am finished," he says with a laugh. "That is a bit of an issue for me, which is why it always takes me a little longer to make an album. I knew I wanted it to be 12 songs. After that, it's a visceral thing. The same way I know a song is done is the way I know an album is done. It's the same feeling."
To prepare for his live set, El-P, has some tricks up his sleeve. "I am bringing along Torbitt Schwartz, a multi-instrumentalist," he says. "We spent a long time figuring out what we could do to make it special, created some new arrangements. It's the record, but it's an enhanced version. I always thought it would be cool for people to come and hear something they will only be able to hear at the live show."
I mention the new El-P-produced Killer Mike album, R.A.P. Music. It's hard not to discuss the two artists in tandem, and the collective energy coming off both their albums is tangible. I return to that Wired quote, and remind him that though he doesn't write political songs, he was able to pull something really special out of Killer Mike on R.A.P. Music, an album not shy about politics.
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"Mike," he says warmly, "... isn't on a pulpit. The thing I love about Mike is he makes you feel like you are part of the discussion. And it's personal, it's related to him. Mike is a really smart man. An album that smart and personal will never be boring."
As we discuss the critical response to Cancer4Cure, I tell him that as an outsider it does seem like he's getting a fresh start. "I always knew I was on the long road," he says. "I knew if I was true to what I do, it would earn me that. I am not the kind of artist that blows up overnight on a lark.
"But it is sort of affirming, that maybe I have made some of the right choices. All it took was 15 years of work. I always told everyone if you worked so hard that you wanted to kill yourself, it will all pay off."
El-P performs at the Granada Theater tonight, with Killer Mike, Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire and Despot.