El-P

Fantastic Damage

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Of all the boundary-pushing underground hip-hop acts who emerged in the late '90s, Company Flow was easily among the hardest and least compromising, spinning highly technical rhymes over buzzing, lo-fi beats with virtually no concessions to melody or polish. It comes as no surprise that onetime Company Flow leader El-P's solo debut, Fantastic Damage, takes a similar approach -- yet it's a logical and distinct progression from the sound that made Company Flow such seminal figures in underground rap. Fantastic Damage is even more aggressive and confrontational in its approach, and this time out, El-P himself is solely responsible for the sonic backdrop, producing the entire record by himself. If the production sounds a little fuller than Company Flow's essential Funcrusher Plus, it's likely because in many places, El-P has fleshed out his scuzzy, banging, stop-start percussion tracks with abrasive, distorted noise, which sounds like nothing so much as the furies unleashed. There are also plenty of tinny, blooping vintage synths that lend the music a cold, inhuman air -- and that's no doubt intentional, because Fantastic Damage paints a chilling portrait of contemporary society that's so bleak it often crosses into the apocalyptic. The music makes El-P's paranoid totalitarian nightmares totally convincing, not just because of its sheer wallop, but also in the subtler details that emerge with repeated listens -- the bizarre sound snippets and ghostly washes that seem to teeter on the edge of madness. Throughout the record, El-P proves he's one of the most technically gifted MCs of his time, spitting out near-impossible phrases and rhythmic variations that simply leave the listener's head spinning. Accessible it isn't, but Fantastic Damage constitutes some of the most challenging, lyrically dense hip-hop around, assembled by one of the genre's true independent mavericks.

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