The first song about abuse by El-P I ever heard was Company Flow’s “Last Good Sleep.” It was one of my least favorite tracks on the fantastic Funcrusher Plus because it was so weird and uncomfortable. El’s flow is slow and strange, just out of step with what I was used to hearing, and the content was simultaneously intimate and distant. He talks about how the man downstairs must’ve drunk one too many beers and how he beats his wife. It took a long time for me to learn to appreciate that song. It’s halting and tense, and it isn’t what I was expecting from CoFlow. It’s a song that sounds like a nightmare.
Two songs on Cancer 4 Cure are about explicitly about abuse and they’re feel much more accessible than “Last Good Sleep” was when I was a kid. “The Jig Is Up” is about hating yourself. “For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mums the Word)” is about being there for someone else.
I first listened to Cancer 4 Cure on a bike ride to work, and then at work, so I didn’t get the fullness of “For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mums the Word)” at first. I misinterpreted the chorus as being about police brutality and the benefits of keeping your eyes shut while working around New York City. I was wrong, obviously. The story’s even better than that.
“For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mums the Word)” begins with El having been called into a police station for questioning. Someone was killed and the cops are checking for witnesses. El’s position is simple: he didn’t see nothing, he didn’t hear nothing, and if something did happen, that sounds like somebody else’s problem, boss. “I spent the day on my New York shit, didn’t even meet them once, and no I’m not upset — I’m just another guy minding his business.”
Verse two is the real story. He ran into his neighbor, an abused woman, in the hall. Rather than sticking to their status quo, which is walking past each other and pretending like he doesn’t hear the noises from the pain her husband inflicts on her, El stops and touches her shoulder and says the first and last thing to her: “Do the thing you have to do and I swear I’ll tell them nothing.”
It’s a song about showing support and being there when somebody or anybody needs it, dig? It’s about letting down the walls that cities build up inside us, looking at someone else, and making sure they know you have their back, no matter what. It doesn’t matter that the solution is a terrible thing. It may have been necessary, it may not, but it’s a solution. It’s a revenge fantasy, but a good one.
The line “The halls are thin and so is skin when bearing witness to the sound you’re generating every day… guess it reminded me of something” screams A Fistful of Dollars to me. There’s that scene where Clint Eastwood rescues a family for no apparent reason, considering this actions thus far. When asked why he did it, he says “Why? Because I knew someone like you once. There was no one there to help.” That sounds like it’s about his own family, right? I don’t know if El-P intended that connection or not, but man, what a detail.
“The Jig Is Up” is about rejecting that same feeling. It’s about looking a pretty girl in the face after she’s explained how much she likes you, calling her a liar, and then demanding to know who put her up to it. It’s about believing that no one could ever love you, and pushing away those that do due to your own insecurity.
El nails this one, too. Even the hook is a flat, high-speed, “I wouldn’t wanna be a part of any club that would have me,” a Groucho Marx joke that rings with finality, instead of humor, in this context. It’s meant to be a funny little turn of phrase, but sometimes funny turns of phrase hit too close for comfort.
El-P will take you on highs and lows. Paranoid and anxious are two words that come to mind when thinking about his music. When he chooses to go low, he hits hard. There’s a bit on “The League of Extraordinary Nobodies” from I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, toward the end, that goes:
I’ve been noticing the fact that nothing glorious can happen anymore
We’ve run the gamut of our filth
But here I am again, pretending spontaneity exists with idiots
All lifted out their little gills
Aren’t you disturbed that everything you did tonight is something else you did already
And its meaning is still nil?
And all the people in your presence are just weapons
It’s as simple as the theory that the dying love to kill
and it’s just the most pathetic thing you ever heard in your life. And then there’s this, from “Request Denied” on Cancer 4 Cure:
I’m a holy fuck what the did he just utter marksman
Orphan, a whore-born, war-torn life for the harvest
A fair-trade target of air raid, starter kit
Used heart plucked from the bargain bin
I don’t give a fraction of fractal of fucks
I’m a Garbage Pail Kid calamity artist
Cancer 4 Cure is about recognizing that you’re the cancer for your cure, and always have been, but not letting that stop you from balling out on your own terms.