Saturday, October 22, 2005

Cage -- Hell's Winter: Review

El-P is a genius. Of that there can be no debate. I haven't been as big a fan of a hip-hop producer since the Rza was in his prime (before he inexplicably and lamentably went all mediocre on everyone). Every beat he creates is dope and symphonic, and he continually tries to best himself (though I get a feeling that he's saving his best tunes for his sophomore album).

So it was with great anticipation that I welcomed Cage's signing with El-P's Definitive Jux label. At the time it was announced, I think, that El would produce the majority, if not all, of the album's tracks. I've never been a huge Cage fan (though I do own The Smut Peddlers Porn Again and the Leak Bros.'s Waterworld), but with El-P on the boards, I was in 100%.

As it turns out, El-P produced or co-produced (with the impressive skills of one Camu Tao) 8 of the album's 14 tracks. But with such beatmasters as rjD2 and DJ Shadow contributing to the project, coupled with the CD getting a 4 1/2 @s review at HipHopSite.com, I was confident the album wouldn't disappoint.

Yet it does. Marginally. Let me explain:

I love and hate this album to pieces. On one hand it's a more mature effort from an artist who for too long didn't see the big picture and realize his potential; on the other, it's a step backwards. There are some sublime moments on this album, but there are also some horribly ill-conceived ones.

Take a walk with me as I scan the tracks like Gordie Lachance.

1. Good Morning

A new addition to the pantheon of "I Heart NY" songs. Great, vicseral album starter. Also a song I can dig while cleaning my house. Guaranteed to get your head bopping before breakfast.

2. Too Heavy For Cherubs

Dreamlike track about Cage's abusive father, produced by Blockhead (with an assist from El-Producto). Hypnotic and doesn't overstay its welcome.

3. Grand Ol' Party Crash

A criticism of the war in Iraq and the US government, produced by DJ Shadow. The beat is strong, superlatively so -- that is until the second verse, when it switches up and gets weighed down by keyboard sounds that dilute the drums. Waaaay overproduced. And Jello Biafra's (whoever the hell he is) Dubya impression throughout the song is annoying beyond words.

4. The Death of Chris Palko

An autobiographal track about Cage's career, produced by Central Services (El-P and Camu Tao). Bouncy. Murky. Awesome track. El-P's skills are evident at the end, when the beat metamorphoses. Regretably, it's then that Camu Tao inexplicably (an apparent theme on the album) kicks a verse that is entirely out of context.

5. Stripes

A track detailing the history of Cage's family; specifically his abusive father, Bill Murray (not the actor), a soldier dishonorably discharged for dealing heroin. Produced by Blockhead with help from El-P. It's a thoughtful track that could have been one of the album's best, except that it loses me whenever the chorus ("fuck Bill Murray/not the actor/ the deadbeat dad who smacked her...") appears. Cringeworthy.

6. Shoot Frank

It's about heroin. I think. The rjD2-laced beat is awesome, recalling the work he did on his debut, Dead Ringer. The lyrics are up to snuff, too. But the guy crooning the hook(s) is dangerous. Part of the sung chorus fits well; it's the other part where dude sounds eerily similar to Linkin Park's Chester Bennington that makes this track difficult to absorb.

7. Scenester

I hate this song because it's so average. Seriously, why did this song make the cut? Not even the record scratching can salvage it. The next track is similar in vein and waaaay better realized. Produced by Blockhead, from whom I might have to take back anything nice I've ever thought or said about his lazy beats. This sounds like an Eminem song; and it's not the only one on the album that does. Ironic, huh?

8. Perfect World

Music to drive by. Excellent track which achieves what the previous one was shooting for: accessibility. Produced by Central Services (El-P and Camu Tao). It's a shame that Scenester makes this song redundant in the context of the album.

9. Subtle Art of the Break-Up Song

Cage exorcises some demons here. Produced by El-P. Sleepy. Not one of El's best efforts. It's serviceable, but slows down the proceedings quickly after the abortion of track 7. Cage appears to be rhyming while chewing gum in the first verse, too. Love the sampled verse on the chorus, though.

NB: Sounds like El-P sampled or interpolated Isaac Hayes's Walk On By. Listen carefully.

10. Peeranoia

Deja Vu. If Scenester was reminiscent of Eminem, Peeranoia is really derivative of that worthy. Produced by PaWL. Listen to this song in contrast to the album's best moments and you'll understand why it's so vexing to hear.

11. Left It To Us

Posse cut...of a sort. Produced by Camu Tao, who contributes the album's best beat. The first time listening to this song, I prematurely declared it the return of the posse joint. It's not, because it dies waaaay too early. Bad move, there. Seriously, if given 5 or 6 minutes, this would have been a classic posse track. I'm talking along the level of Scenario and Represent (drinks on me if you catch the songs I'm alluding to). Inexplicably (there it is again), it cuts out at the 3 1/2 minute mark. Booooo!

12. Public Property

Cage airs his beef regarding his previous label. Produced by Camu Tao. Good-if-not-great track. Chorus is borderline terrible; the rest is alright.

13. Lord Have Mercy

Episodic, CSI-style track. Produced by El-P, who proves that an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach to beat crafting can work supremely, and whose jock I'm on like Gold Bond. Sad to say, the beat works better sans Cage's rhymes. Would have fit in well on Little Johnny From the Hospital. Luckily, the disc comes with an instrumental version (which I've yet to listen to; I hope to hell the sung choruses and echoed voices are excluded).

14. Hell's Winter

Incendiary. Produced by you-know-who. Shame on you if you miss the end part of the track, where El-P shows some more virtuoso.

Verdict:

This could have been a classic. As it is, it's uneven, at times maddeningly so. Still, the good outweighs the bad. But it could have been better. Hell's Winter is Full Metal Jacket. I was hoping for Clockwork Orange.

4/5 *_*

5 comments:

James from lostseouls.com said...

You've not sold it to me- but then I thought "Birth Of A Prince" was ace so it sounds like we haven't got the same tastes.

Have you heard the Dangerdoom album?

Sparkles*_* said...

'Birth of a Prince,' the Prince Paul album? It's wonderful.

Haven't heard DangerDoom yet. I was reluctant to order it because of the Adult Swim connection (thought it might be cheesy beyond belief). If you've heard it, is it as good or better than Madvillain?

Sparkles*_* said...

Oops, I realized, James, that you meant the RZA's last CD, not the Prince Paul disc (which is called 'A Prince Among Thieves'). Brainfart.

James from lostseouls.com said...

I haven't heard Madvillain, but am not going to let that stop me offering an opinion.

They're both great but Dangerdoom is a chicken and mushroom pie to Madvillain's aural cornish pastie.

dissed and franchised said...

i think some cats dont get where all this is going. the comparisons are useless. dont complain about your orange not tasting like an apple. its called progression. if left to us is the illest beat then we, my friend, are at an impass. just another generic "posse cut" as you say. best track- track 1. anyone into the new dueces wild joint? just got the old mf doom vs mos def album which is decent. i do hope we can all agree on el's new one. f'n sick. and the illest cage album by far is the nighthawks joint. but hells winter grows on ya like cancer.