There’s something bleak and claustrophobic brewing in the beats and rhymes of New York City, and here it boils over into a seventy-minute scream of anger, apocalypse and funkiness, shot through with a menacing surrealism. The music is manic, pushed into extremity because that’s how El-P can express himself in a perceived world of brutality and collapse. The beats are abstract – they may seem a bit bonkers to someone raised on the recycled rhythms of the mainstream, but once your body has assimilated El-P’s skewed version of the turntable art, then his iron-hard clash of samples and bass can be addictive, and can open up new territory in the part of your mind labelled ‘blistering funk’.
El-P first came to attention as one part of revolutionary trio Company Flow, whose Funcrusher Plus LP gave us uncompromising rhymes coupled to a bruising, kaleidoscopic sound not heard anywhere else. It cleared new ground within a musical form on the brink of middle age – and while the hip-hop mainstream turns in on itself, mired in gangsta cool and hollow posturing, the margins continue to harbour innovative work intent on burning down the genre’s boundaries in a blaze of skill and imagination. By founding his own independent label, Def Jux, and producing Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, a futuristic magnum opus which gained a large audience, El-P is already seen as a twisted hip-hop saviour, a magus of the beats. He’s even been accused of dousing the Beatles with brown acid and dumping them “on the baddest corner of the block for a battle to the death with the flesh-eating MCs” by one critic referring to a track called “Raspberry Fields”.
Listening to Fantastic Damage can be disorientating to say the least – a dirty and rumbling funk swells from the speakers while a sampled voice intones: “How does one man gain power over another? By making him suffer… Power is tearing human minds apart and putting them back together in shapes of your own choosing.” It’s uncomfortably like being locked in a small room with a possible genius who’s shouting at you in a language you barely comprehend. “Motherfuckers, did I sound abstract? I hope I sound more confusing than that” spits El-P on “Tuned Mass Damper”, responding to claims of wilful obscurity – the world, then, is too complex and fluid to be more than partially reflected in any simplistic, easy-to-understand way.
“Now the evening has come to a close and I’ve had my last dance with you / so onto the empty streets we go and it might be my last chance with you… the things I have to say, won’t wait until another day” whispers a breathy voice in the opening seconds of the album: but it’s inescapable that those must-be-said things too often end up sounding confused, delivered in a kind of code. When clarity is to be found the music becomes searing and direct. “Dead Disnee” gives us an atomised funk of electronica over which El-P raps lyrical about the rotten core of our age – “when the city burns out then we’ll go to Disney world” – while a barely audible heavenly choir sing in the distance.
On another stand-out track, “Stepfather Factory”, we’re in the future (“jobs for the community, the age of familial industry”) and a factory owner is selling us a “state of the art, true to human emotion and trained to be domestic, made from the most easily available materials and loosely inspected, guaranteed to revolutionise and be institutionally respected, robotic relative.” Human relationships mechanised, turned over to cyborgs. The track winds up in a piece of factory small-print and we begin to suspect that maybe this isn’t the future, but a view of the present filtered through a paranoid lens: “fuel sources are at a slight risk of mixing with the crisp plutonium centre of your new spouse” leading to simulated worthlessness manifested in acts of physical aggression towards “you or your loved ones’ fleshy surfaces. Remember: No cash returns.”
The landscape in which we live is one of packed prisons, asylum detention centres and buildings protected against terrorism by armed police. El-P’s paranoia and violent soundscape is meant to be a mirror reflecting what we are. The flaw, sadly, is that this reflective quality is only partially present in the album as a whole – too many of the tracks are out of focus, the work of a talented but tired man. Memorable phrases, funny one-liners and redemptive musical flashes are sprinkled throughout, but take a step back and there is no overall coherence which would have reigned in the sometimes overblown production. But despite all this we’re left in no doubt that if the truth is out there, then it should be sampled, funked up and chanted over a matrix of hip-hop beats.