You can hear the rumbling of some sort of hip-hop future on a few recent releases. It grumbles through the Anti-Pop Consortium's Arrhythmia; it unsteadies your balance on Prefuse 73's Vocal Studies & Uprock Narratives; its knees buckle within Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein.
It's the sound of the steady bump-thwack-bump-thwack beat being fucked with. In the same way Ornette Coleman challenged jazz's steadiness, an important movement in hip-hop is questioning the notion of the standard beat. Rhythms wobble, then stumble. They're drunk, and the only thing supporting the beats is the MC -- a brilliant role reversal. At the forefront of the new is El-P, who, on his debut full-length, Fantastic Damage, nails it.
El-P used to be in Company Flow, a NYC group that earned respect in the late '90s before dissolving. These days, he's entrepreneur and producer: His label, Definitive Jux, consistently churns out shockers, and he's made beats for some of hip-hop's most adventuresome. El-P's out there, and he's got company.
On Fantastic Damage El-P occupies the roles of producer and MC, and he kills. As an MC, he spits paragraphs, not stanzas. Yes, he rhymes, but he's got a peculiar internal clock. Seldom does he squeeze to fit his lyrics into the obvious rhythm; rather, he evenly balances lyrical needs and beat flow -- if he needs space to finish a thought, he finds it -- so his tracks roll at their own strange pace.
But El-P's better at producing than rapping. His tracks are uniformly insane. Dungeon drones battle with synthetic beeps. He inserts ear-splittingly high frequencies just to fuck with your head, couples them with deep bass, adds human moans to beats and rhythms that jump and reorganize nearly every four measures. El-P hates stasis, so while the Diddys of the world take the interstate to the end of a song, El-P cruises the winding thoroughfares.
Like most hip-hop records, though, it's too goddamn long; there's filler, and the record occasionally loses its momentum. Were Fantastic Damage twenty minutes shorter, it'd be perfect; as it stands, though, it's merely fantastic.