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Damage Control

 

El-P: Fantastic Damage

Definitive Jux, 2002

Rating: 4.3

 

 

Posted: August 12, 2002

By Laurence Station

El Producto (El-P) has stayed pretty busy since his trio, Company Flow, broke up in early 2000. He started an indie rap label (Definitive Jux), produced Cannibal Ox's excellent 2001 debut The Cold Vein, and finally released his long-awaited solo album Fantastic Damage. While not the landmark achievement of Company Flow's 1997 masterpiece Funcrusher Plus, Fantastic Damage is still the most intense, bracing and emphatically purposeful underground hip-hop album to hit the streets this year.

Building on the masterful turntablism of DJ Abilities and utilizing jarring, cacophonous rhythms, blunt-edged techno beats and disorienting samples, El-P, along with an army of guest rappers -- featuring solid rhymes by fellow Def Jux artists Aesop Rock ("Delorean") and Mr. Lif ("Blood") -- serves up sixteen hard-hitting tracks, dealing with issues ranging from the disintegration of the traditional family to paranoid rants describing a future police state.

"Squeegee Man Shooting" employs thick, distorted basslines that add gravity to El-P's recollection of his youth in the mid-'80s, from the highs of discovering hip-hop to the police shooting of a homeless window washer. Such dichotomies run throughout the album, with El-P wrestling to find any shred of goodness in a world filled with evil and greed.

"Truancy" announces "This is for kids worried about the apocalypse," exhorting today's youth to "Do something" and "Stop talking shit", while "Dead Disnee" cynically imagines going to Disney World after civilization has gone to hell in a hand basket as a result of crushing poverty and crime.

"Constellation Funk" concerns itself with hip-hop's disconnection from its street roots and the dangers of alcoholism. Yet, through all the rage and frustration, El-P manages to find a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. On the closing, affirmative "Blood" he warns, "Don't look now/ you're becoming your parents" and urges kids to "Do right."

The heart of Fantastic Damage arrives in the middle, with an astonishing four-song assault that articulates the album's themes with brutal clarity and precision. "The Nang, The Front, The Bush And The Shit" correlates war combat with a young El-P's rise through the hip-hop ranks. "Accidents Don't Happen" proclaims "Trust is a commodity/ Crushed by Pol Pot-tery," and uses digitized samples and dark future lyrical imagery to sound off about the loss of personal freedoms and brutal injustices visited upon his family. "Stepfather Factory" talks of building "tomorrow's fathers today" and "the rise of familial industry," imagining a world filled with robotic substitutes who run on alcohol and are prone to abuse and neglect. "T.O.J." proves the most poignant track, as El-P confesses, "I grew up afraid that I was crazy," relating how his troubled past doomed a budding romantic relationship.

There are a few duds in the overall mix. “Dr. Hellno and The Praying Mantis,” despite a memorable hook courtesy of Cannibal Ox’s Vast Aire, falls flat in its send-up of clichéd misogynistic rap lyrics, while the too brief “Innocent Leader” offers a dense mix and meaty beat that frustratingly trails off without going anywhere. From start to finish, however, the album rarely disappoints.

Fantastic Damage could be seen as a cathartic outlet for El-P, an indulgent attempt to work out his personal problems in a callously commercial manner. But nothing could be further from the truth. The pain is genuine; as El-P makes clear from the outset, hip-hop saved his life, and, more than anything, Fantastic Damage is an ode to the redemptive power and spirit of the art form.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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