El-P came to prominence as a member of Company Flow at the turn of the century, one of hip hop’s most forward looking and sonically adventurous acts. His first solo album proper was the well-received Fantastic Damage in 2002. Five years later he’s come up with a follow-up (although there was an instrumental collection called High Water in 2004). I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is an intense and relentless set. The seven minute opener “Tasmanian Pain Coaster” is a dense, remorseless sonic trip. It sets the scene for an hour of music that seldom lets up the vehemence. Lyrically, El-P is deft, even if he verges on the nihilistic at times. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is not a set that oozes optimism. It could be construed as a protest album against Bush’s America, but there seems a dearth of much hope throughout the record.
There are guests a-plenty including old sparring partners Mr Lif and Aesop Rock, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power). Reznor collaborates on “Flyentology”, a tract on religion that seems to be both an attack on those who turn to it only when they’re in deep trouble, and a rather naked and confused declaration of faith. It’s track ten, and the second of a closing quintet of tracks that really make the album. “The Overly Dramatic Truth” is a fairly moving exercise in soul searching, but closing track “Poisenville Kids No Wins” is the pick of them. It’s a bitter attack on small time drug dealers who prey on no-hope slum kids and bristles with righteous anger.
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is packed full of quotable lines. It’s an intense and intensely personal album. Musically, too, it’s an adventurous record, mixing hip hop, samples and muscular industrial rock. Sometimes, though, it’s just too wordy for its own good as the barrage of rhymes leaves little space for the music to breathe. It’s almost as if there is two albums worth of lyrics crammed on to one record. It takes a few listens to penetrate the sonic stew, but it’s definitely worth the effort. And there are more ideas on this record, both lyrically and musically, than most rappers have in a career.