Listening consecutively to the first two albums from Brooklyn rapper El-P is a marathon: 27 tracks, two hours, 100 notable rhythmic shifts, enough words to line a meaty libretto.
When El-P makes a record, he makes a master statement, exhausting resources, time and ideas in the process, packing them all under the circus tent of his sprawling, noisy production and socially rebarbative linguistic spittle. He asks his friends (from Cat Power and Trent Reznor to Aesop Rock and Vast Aire) to help. He guides it all with a hard-line vision. As challenging, dense and intricate as his work may be, though, El-P—at his thinking-too-fast, whirlwind-of-notions best—is as rewarding an aesthete as music has had this decade.
But the second of these records, this year's I'll Sleep When You're Dead, signals a shift in El-P's lyrical approach that's tempered the aim of his laser tongue. Before, El was obsessed with details, whether that meant slamming hard on the record labels that he hated (Rawkus and anticon) or repeating the line—unflinching, cold, vigilant—"Because the man who raped my sister won't sleep right tonight." Such venom defined 2002's Fantastic Damage and makes it still the better listen. Less than even a little exegesis makes the paranoia of a post-9/11 New York apparent, the album's edgy, unsettled nature coming across in raw nerves and mentions of dirty sex, Big Daddy Kane records and alcoholic stepfathers. It's long enough and rich enough that, at every turn, El-P reveals something different about himself, his personal mythology and his philosophy.
Actually, in retrospect, Fantastic Damage, released four months after Bush II took office, feels almost like a folk album, or a modern blues moan. True, El-P and his Def Jux gaggle often get pinned as the abstract end of hip hop. That's an assessment that, given the critical overreaction to one song by Mims, is as accurate as it is damaging. But on Fantastic Damage, you get it all: Drug talk, societal misgivings, sexual fantasies, biographical mementos. El-P seems like a very real rapper, and in revealing himself piece by piece, he made Fantastic Damage an hour-long ride worth repeating again and again.
But I'll Sleep When You're Dead lacks that magnetism. On every other level, it should be the better album: It's got bona fide hooks, and El-P's production actually lets them shine. A handful of songs could make killer singles. Instead, under a thin veil of better-than-you condescension, El-P hides the details, reveling more in obtuse wordplay and mantra-building (Aesop Rock does both better) than the wit and candor that made Fantastic Damage successful.
The record's best moment comes in "The Overly Dramatic Truth," when El-P sounds again like a troubled man with a chest to bare. Otherwise, instead of learning about his dad playing jazz drunk on the piano, you learn that El-P doesn't have a Hummer. Instead of the insightful, empirical "Stepfather Factory," you get the intriguing but impersonal allegory of "Habeas Corpses." The repeat value plummets.
Just before he went to sleep in a French hotel room two months ago, El-P disagreed with this argument entirely: "I don't see the record the way you do. In fact, I think this record has more concrete ideas in it than Fantastic Damage," he said, actually more than a little put off by the suggestion. And that may be true. Maybe El-P feels like he funneled more of himself into this album. It's just that he forgot to include the solipsistic signifiers that let his audience know as much.
This isn't a complaint that's limited to hip hop at all: To me at least, the best albums from The Hold Steady were the first two, or the ones where Craig Finn described the characters of his past with almost gonzo detail. Boys and Girls in America—or the record that made the New York five-piece legitimately famous last year—was more interested in slogans and synopses than the gory, devilish details of wasted kids and quests for salvation. If you don't believe that, compare what you know about the kids in the "Chillout Tent" to how well you pictured Hallelujah Holly when she arrived in church during "Crucifixion Cruise." And as writers from Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen to John K. Samson and Richard Buckner have shown in some of their best moments, the proper placement of a tiny detail can swing a song into something bigger than itself. On I'll Sleep When You're Dead, El-P doesn't.
El-P plays the Cat's Cradle Thursday, June 7, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $14-$16.