When El-P decided to step down as the head of Def Jux records, he said the reason was to enable him to focus on his career as a musician and producer. He had been coasting in his comfort zone, producing the dark, head-banging beats for his cohorts of Can Ox, Cage, Mr. Lif, and the like. But considering the state of the record industry, among other events such as the death of Camu Tau, El-P has essentially put the entire label on hiatus. So now, with bundles of time on his hands and no traditional outlet for his work, he has released a series of mixtapes called Weareallgoingtoburninhell, the third of which is entirely instrumentals.
Although the basic concept has diverged from his previous work, the sound remains trademark Lazerface, drowned in dense, droning synths, pounded to the ground by hard-knocking drum kits. El-P is the master of textures, who weaves light, buzzing lines through a heavy orchestral tapestry. The sludgy bass line on “Whores: The Movie” trudges through the soundscape like an elephant stuck in the mud. Meanwhile, the drums trample the track like a stampede of wildebeest. “Contagious Snippet”, a jazzy number with fuzzed out instruments all around, best embraces the concept of an instrumental album. Unfortunately, tracks like these are mixed in with plain hip-hop instrumentals like El-P’s “Driving Down the Block Remix.” As you would expect, this tough, grimy beat is top-notch, but the replay value is virtually zero.
What works in hip-hop production – pretty little blips of music poking their heads out of the mix to grab your attention, then ducking back down – does not necessary jive in pure instrumentals. If the intention is for the tune to remain in the frontal lobe, there must be some element that carries the listener’s attention. The intricate instrumentation characteristic of El-P’s lush hip-hop beats created the ideal atmospheric backdrop for Vast to spit his spaced-out rhymes has been teased apart and built upon. Instead of unifying the pieces and animating the redundancy, the space has been filled in with disparate elements that rarely create a larger whole.
These mixtapes are likely portals to the future of what could be expected from El-P, yet here he has not composed a truly engaging instrumental album. He over-thought most of the tracks, failing to maintain focus on or fully develop any particular theme. Various elements drop in and out at terse intervals, presenting an idea for just enough time to intern it before moving on. But El-P has always had a theatrical flair, creating music that transports you to another place and time, and several tracks here do suck you into his demonic hip-hop underworld.