El-P's brand of hip-hop sounds infected with a disease it has long since given up on curing. Everything is rotten and resigned, from his beats to his lyrics, which conspire and compare notes on what it means to be spiraling down through end times without wanting or needing to do anything about it. "The sky's high by coincidence," he raps, ever the skeptic.
He's also something of a romantic, and I'll Sleep When You're Dead works best when it's hard to figure out which El-P is most prominently on display. As a producer, he shows his love for hip-hop through a sound bent on the genre's very destruction; give El-P a breakbeat or a vocal snip to sample, and he'd sooner blow it up than rub it down. As an MC, he lays into the communicative aspects of rapping with a verbal style so dense and layered that simple communication can be hard to come by. Listening to El-P for any real stretch of time requires a high threshold for confusion.
Confusion plays to grand ends on I'll Sleep When You're Dead, which comes nearly five years after El-P made a celebrated solo move with Fantastic Damage. Still most striking is the sound; nobody makes hip-hop as textured and atmospheric as El-P, and he manages to temper his disorienting noise with soulful suggestions this time out. In "Tasmanian Pain Coaster," after a sample of Twin Peaks' Laura Palmer cooing about fire, the initial death-march of a beat gives way to a warm bit of electric-piano R&B that might play on a Schlitz commercial. The beat in "Smithereens" draws on an indecipherable din of shrieks, static, and sirens that vary in volume to allow occasional peeks under the hood. It's dirty, gritty, and always on the brink of breaking down, in part for having been driven so indelicately.