Cancer For Cure is a triumph of imagination and intelligence in service of a pervasive sense of personal and political unease. Rapper-producer El-P imagines himself as a dot on a radar screen, tracked by unknown hunters, working his way across some surreal bureaucratic hellscape. On “Tougher Colder Killer,” a soldier kills a man for reasons he can’t quite explain. The victim’s last words—that there’s always someone bigger and better above him who can wipe him out—reverberate long after he’s left the battlefield. On “The Jig Is Up,” he asks a woman who for some bizarre reason wants to spend her free time with him, “Tell me who sent you here? What agency?” Yet just because El-P is paranoid doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be followed. Like the best works of science fiction, Cancer For Cure is compelling because its unsettling narratives aren’t purely fantasy.
El-P is an auteur in peak form here, weaving dense, cerebral verses packed with internal rhymes through a machine-tooled version of classic New York boom-bap with a gnarly, post-industrial edge—part KRS-One, part Cabaret Voltaire. There’s always a muffled cacophony of nasty voices just on the outside of a sealed subway car, through the ceiling of his poorly constructed apartment, or at the other end of a deep chemical stupor. “I’ve got memories to lose, man,” he admits on “Works Every Time.” But this isn’t pity-seeking, it’s pure pragmatism. El-P lost his good friend and collaborator Camu Tao to lung cancer in 2008, and the sense that the loss has tainted everything in his life pervades the record. The album ends with El-P’s laser-focused assertion that the memory of his friend keeps him locked in, pushing through the muck. It’s cold comfort, and he knows it’s likely pointless, but it’ll work for now.