Friday, May 2, 2014

El-P - Fantastic Damage Review (2002)

September 11th, 2001 affected much more than the political and economic landscape of the 21st century throughout the world, it also altered the fabric of the underground Hip-Hop scene emerging at the time. While politically infused songs and artists are nothing new to our society, the pseudo-intellectual backpack rappers that formed out of this decade were. Concerned over the state of our terrorized citizenship, these cliques aggregated themselves towards the common goal of anti-establishment in the face of ever-looming danger. While the majority saw 9/11 as a time of heightened patriotism, underground political rappers chose to focus on what caused the attack in the first place; America’s place as leaders of the free world, attempting at imperializing their democratic ways throughout the globe. El-P, renowned lyricist/producer, was no stranger to the events that unfolded, growing up under the twin towers’ shadow in Brooklyn, and certainly wasn’t the first to question the authority during a time when in doing so meant undeniable ostracization. Fantastic Damage, the debut from El-P, released just months after 9/11, and aimed at foretelling our fear-mongering state through the eyes of those who would soon witness it. A landmark piece of underground material, Fantastic Damage often seems under-appreciated in Hip-Hop today, being often-times scoffed at for its critical ways of looking at our capitalist culture.

To compliment the lyrical content and thematic positions at hand, El-P needed a sound unheard in Hip-Hop, one grittier than Mobb Deep, more electrified than Afrika Bambaataa, and more artist-defining than Outkast. Morphing his previous production work with Cannibal Ox on their stellar debut The Cold Vein, El-P crafted a sound only defined to his own merits. Fractured, jarring, and lo-fi throughout, Fantastic Damage, echoes El-P’s initial sentiments of constructing a record whose sound fashions itself to dread, fear, and anxiety; the three largest feeling of the American citizens at the time. The album’s opening title track begins this beautifully, with an air-raid siren stretched to resemble an ever-lasting guitar riff, before collapsing upon itself, only to be repaired through splintered reverberations of distorted keyboard shuffles and muddled low-end splotched textures. One can only get so far as to portraying the apocalypse through production alone, thankfully however, El-P’s hyper-literate, abstract, oft-kilter rhyming schemes help elevate the state of disjointed feelings and uncomfortable toe-stepping’s.  In fact, his opening lines “the fabulous structure that’s coaxed out of rubbles puddles splash/mechanisms burn with beeping sounds that own their humans sold as/Ruthless rounds of radio dust, cranial mush, men get flattened out” whittle the entire meaning, message and sound of Fantastic Damage down to a 10 second burst of jumbled emotions over the events of 9/11.

The rest of the album, while not as definitively solid, plays a part in the ever-looming fear present throughout the piece. Take standout Stepfather Factory, the concept laid easily through the title. In it El-P brilliantly details the creation of robotic fathers, fueled by alcohol and abuse. Played out like a PSA from the company itself, the ragingly artificial track begins to succumb to overexposure to the weight of domestic problems in relative terms to the 21st century, with El-P bearing full witness to the events “I’m not only the president, I’m a client.” It’s tracks like this on Fantastic Damage that breath life, no matter how brutal and candid, in El-P’s work, something many artists would fail to accomplish. The Nang, the Front, the Bush, and Shit is yet another example of his bravura story-telling style, lending itself more to spoken word than to Hip-Hop. In it he details the life of a soldier in the trenches of war, bogged down by hate, violence, and stereotypes his father instilled upon him as a child. In typical fashion however, the flip midway through has the same metaphors used now as haughty proclamations at the state of El’s rap skills, ending with a mash of the two concepts, “hollow metal slugs penetrated, just demonstrated, fuck your fake face I hate it.”

Verbally speaking El-P’s voice and lyrics throughout further convey the sense of fractured harmony present in the early 2000’s of societal standards in American. Tension was at an all-time high, and Fantastic Damage portrays this through not just the topics, nor the production, but El-P’s voice and rhyming patterns as a whole. Disjointed flows and uncorrelated lyrics clutter the foreground, showcasing, beyond just the rapper’s skills, the fear and stress hampered by the powerful forces bogging down our capitalist, modern society.  See Accidents Don’t Happen where, amongst the clatter of 9/11 discussion, El-P swarms listeners with the foreseeable future where kids have guns, corporations run the world, and the government bugs those who they deem worthy of their disseminating eye. Retaining this concept is the intro and outro sample, performed by George Orwell’s 1984, a film about a dystopian America, one that has recently became relatively true. However, not all songs here focus on our civilization as a whole. While retaining the despair and desperation, T.O.J., the album’s most startling exhibition of fragmented reality, retells the failings of a relationship. A stuttered drum mix starts things off before blossoming into a mechanical mess of synths launched through a beat switch so unorthodox in Hip-Hop it still boggles the mind to this day. All this occurs within El-P’s letter to his Ex, realizing the relationship itself, and its inevitable end, made him the man he is today.

Fantastic Damage, at least in my opinion, will always remain a landmark in underground Hip-Hop society. A changing of the guard, where abstract lyricism mangled with a dystopian production style led by our robotic overlords, steered the direction of many artists outside the mainstream in fulfilling the beliefs of anti-capitalism. Few criticisms can be made on the album’s behalf, the most noticeable being its length. 16 fully fleshed out tracks hardly accumulate to a classically foretold album, and in most cases only encourage filler to encompass its span. The constant build of quality and meaning on showcase here only help reel listeners in to the message conveyed. On the album’s titular closer, Blood, in contrast to the angst, depression, and politically-charged fear adorning the previous 15 tracks, El-P and feature Mr.Lif discuss their versions of the future, with more positive remarks despite being wrapped up in an illusion (“Yo, I saw a dream flow slow through the soluble haemoglobin”). It’s an uplifting sentiment to leave off on, but, as the album prophesies, the beautifully ugly, mechanically splintered fantastic damage had been done.

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