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Album Review: Fantastic Damage

Fantastic Damage is the debut solo album of New York rapper/producer El-P, released in 2002 on his Def Jux record label.
“…you wanna buy the farm, but the land’s not yours to own…”

 

Fantastic Damage is, exactly as its title implies, simultaneously awe-inspiring and crushing. As yet another feather in Def Jux’s, it succeeds admirably; as the long-awaited solo debut of a much-hyped artist, it exceeds expectations; as an underground hip-hop album—scratch that, hip-hop album, period—it can stand alongside any of the greats. It feels like a natural extension of El-P’s previous work with Company Flow, while at the same time establishing him as a vital solo artist in his own right. How? For starters, this is not an album interested in compromising itself. El-P largely eschews the battle rhyming and self-referential lyrics prevalent in the underground community—even when he does, it’s often aimed not at the mainstream, but at fellow underground artists (it’s hard to take lines like “you motherfuckers don’t have grit/you’re all teenage poetry, martyrs without causes” any other way).

El-P’s lyrics are often abstract, but rarely philosophical; more often, they come across as free-associative rants, spitballing so quickly it’s nearly impossible to pull out a coherent train of thought. Adding to this overwhelming feeling is the fact that on many songs (the title track in particular) the vocals are overdubbed and crowded to the point of illegibility. The final effect is akin to being interrogated at gunpoint by a half-dozen people at once, all of them shouting.

Needless to say, this is not an album for everyone. If, by the end of the title track, you feel as if you’ve just been severely bludgeoned, you probably fall into that category. Still, if you can look past the seeming atonality of much of the music, you’ll find a truly varied, intricate, and colorful set of instrumentals.

And that’s where Fantastic Damage really shines—in the instrumentals. They’re (by and large) more melodic and complex than El-P’s previous work with Company Flow, but don’t think for a second that any aggressiveness was sacrificed to achieve this. Songs like “Tuned Mass Damper” pack just as much a punch as anything off of Funcrusher Plus; the difference is that, in refining and fleshing out his craft (as he undeniably does here) El-P ensures that more of those punches hit home.

The opening track, for example, is an unapologetically brutal rush to the head; it starts off with an dissonant tone that sounds like an air-raid siren driving straight into one’s brain, and once the beat kicks in, it sounds as if it’s trying to violently shake itself apart. Needless to say, the going doesn’t get any easier for the remaining 15 songs.

Where to start? “Delorean”’s verse/chorus/breakdown dynamic is gleefully disjointed, “Dr. Hellno and the Praying Mantus” is a lumbering, lecherous beast, with its three-note bassline and aquatic bursts of feedback, and the unhinged, abrasively cluttered funk of “Lazerfaces’ Warning” can only be described as completely insane—to name just a few examples.

Still, fans of El-P’s more recent work may be surprised at the overall clunkiness of Fantastic Damage. Samples cut in and out of the songs like shards of glass, drum loops sound like they’re falling over each other, and half the time, the vocals don’t even bother to line up with the beat. At the very least, though, it doesn’t fall into the trap (depressingly common in the underground) of confusing unpolished for better. Make no mistake, Fantastic Damage is just as meticulously assembled as any Bomb Squad production you’d care to name.

Now, there are downsides to the album—some fairly homogenous choruses, forgettable guest features, the like—but overall, Fantastic Damage still stands out as one of the most ambitious, uncompromising hip-hop albums of the 2000s. El-P’s style is most definitely an acquired taste, but if you’re into the sort of Def Jux aesthetic (harsh beats, dense wordplay, abstract lyrics) he helped to popularize, definitely check this out.


Essential Listening: Tuned Mass DamperAccidents Don’t Happen, Stepfather Factory