Saturday, June 23, 2012

Collections: El-P - Collecting the Kid

Featuring the tracks:  Death of Buck 50, Jukie Skate Rock, Post Mortem Use Me 2, Feel Like a Ghost, Time is Running Out, Telemundo (Bombing Theme), Slow Sex (Love Theme), Constellation (Remix), The Dance, The Day After Yesterday, Oxycontin, and Sunrise Over Bklyn

Though El-P’s Definitive Jux record label is no longer in business, recent releases by artists in the label’s orbit serve as reminders of Def Jux’s legacy of carefully constructed, wildly ambitious, and gorgeously packaged albums.  El-P’s own Cancer 4 Cure album is as densely detailed and spellbindingly surreal as anything the producer/rapper has ever done, and Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, produced in its entirety by El-P, is even better.  Cancer 4 Cure and R.A.P. Music were both clearly conceived of as albums rather vehicles for singles, making them anomalies in both their genre and in the ITunes age in general. 

Still, like any ambitious perfectionist with experimental tendencies, El-P has produced a lot of ephemera that doesn’t fit on any of his solo albums or those of his associates.  His series of weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamix mixes feel randomly constructed even by the loose standards of hip hop mixtapes, with demo-ish outtakes brushing shoulders with unused beats, remixes, studio chatter, and selected moments from other people’s songs.  (The third volume, which is basically a suite of hip hop instrumentals, is the exception to the rule, and the only one that feels like a proper album).  2004’s Collecting the Kid falls somewhere in between El-P’s “for hardcore fans only” mixtapes and his essential solo albums.  There are several songs here that El-P fans won’t want to be without, but they are frustratingly mixed in with tracks that devotees will already own as well as a handful of filler cuts that probably didn’t need to see the light of day (or that are better appreciated in other contexts).

The bulk of the compilation’s tracks are moody instrumentals, many of which come from El-P’s score for the little-seen 2002 film Bomb the System.  El-P’s Bomb the System work shares many of the same qualities as RZA’s exhilarating score for Ghost Dog:  the Way of the Samurai (1999), with the lurching funk of “The Day After Yesterday” standing out in particular as one of El-P’s finest beats.  Collecting the Kid is bookended by rare efforts outside the hip hop genre.  “Death of Buck 50” is a creepy, percussion-free bit of ambient synth music that would make Brian Eno or Aphex Twin proud, while “Sunrise Over Bklyn” is a lovely collaboration with the experimental jazz musicians from the Blue Series Continuum.  That said, the latter track’s inclusion on this collection is somewhat puzzling, since it also appeared on El-P’s full-length jazz fusion album High Water, which was released at right around the same time as Collecting the Kid.  Though “Sunrise Over Bklyn” is one of the highlights of that album, it seems like an odd choice to represent El-P’s jazz work here, since it is one of the tracks from High Water where the producer’s input is least evident (he seems to have mostly provided some mood-enhancing background synthesizer squeals).  “Get Modal,” a more precise fusion of hip hop and jazz, might have been a better representative track from High Water, though again, including anything from that contemporaneous album on Collecting the Kid seems weirdly unnecessary. 

It’s tempting to say that El-P should have simply released his instrumentals from Bomb the System and left the rest of the tracks here on the cutting room floor, but that would leave a few worthwhile songs stranded.  The remix of “Constellation Funk” turns the least-compelling track from El-P’s Fantastic Damage (2002) into an eerie, mind-bending slice of mutant R&B with vocals by Stephanie Vezina.  “Constellation” is a model of creative remixing, retaining the best properties of the original track while transforming it into something completely different.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the instrumental remix of Mr. Lif’s “Post Mortem,” which hews so close to El-P’s original beat that its inclusion here seems utterly pointless. 

There is surprisingly little rapping on Collecting the Kid, and it is disappointing to look at the liner notes and see that the only Def Jux artist besides El-P to make any vocal appearances here is Camu Tao, perhaps the least talented MC from the label’s impressive roster.  Shockingly, Camu’s appearances actually provide two of the best moments on the compilation, and they suggest that his talent may simply never have been properly framed in album format before his untimely 2008 death.  “Jukie Skate Rock” is a fun play on old-school dance-rap, while “Oxycontin” is a disconcertingly operatic piece of feel-bad storytelling with unhinged warbling from Camu.  “Oxycontin” was originally conceived of as the first part of a Def Jux “rap opera” that would tell the story of a relationship falling apart because of drug addiction; part two, a duet between El-P and Cage, appeared on one of the Def Jux Presents compilations, but apparently this promising concept never went any further.  Thankfully collections like Collecting the Kid exist to ensure that lost gems like “Oxycontin” have a home, even if they are unfortunately surrounded by too many half-formed songs or tracks that are already available in better contexts.

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