Monday, December 21, 2009

#11. 'Remember, no cash returns - only credit towards future purchases'

El-P "Stepfather Factory"

Some things defy categorization. "Stepfather Factory" is hip hop in the sense that there are beats and rapping, but in practice it sounds a world away from even the most abstracted edges of the genre. In content and form it feels like something completely outside of any genre of music, but in practice it's identifiably hip hop. Maybe it's just thanks to its surroundings that it falls in there, but in isolation it feels wrong to reduce to a simple classification of hip hop or even the more nebulous experimental hip hop. In actuality it's half sales pitch half instructional manual all recited over the bleakest of El-P's uber-bleak post-apocalyptic soundscapes, a message of hope doomed to failure, possibly the most gut-wrenching, twist-the-knife moment in music this decade expanded to 4 and a half minutes. It's social commentary, it's hard to do justice to in words, but above everything else it's the kind of song that makes - nay, forces - you to sit up and pay attention. It's a totally singular achievement in music, regardless of genre, and easily my favorite hip hop single of the decade. Others may be more invigorating ("B.O.B.") lyrically dense ("Daylight") or smooth ("What You Know") but none of them make me sit up straight, get me totally enraptured, make me a bit sick to my stomach and then make me hit repeat so I can go through it all again.

Is it masochism? I mean, this song hurts like no other. It's not even that I have any personal abusive stepfather experiences to relate it to, just second hand ones from acquaintances. But it's always stepfathers. Always. Part of what makes "Stepfather Factory" work as well as it does is the fact that the story of the abusive stepfather is such an ingrained one in our society. El-P just took the concept and ran with it; if all stepfathers are abusive drunks what's saying they aren't factory made robots who run on booze? It sounds cheesy on paper, I'll be the first to admit that, but in practice it's mind blowing; alternately chilling and darkly humorous, perfectly constructed on every level and unique as fuck - even if that has no bearing on is overall quality it needs to be said. Like I stated, it's not so much a rap track as an advertisement, promising the moon while the fine print points it in the opposite direction. For every empty promise of improvement ('Jobs for the community!') there's a catch around the corner ('made from the most readily available materials and, uh, loosely inspected') and the latter just keep piling up until the song crashes to its end. I will say that no matter how many times I've heard it and despite knowing it's coming from the moment the track starts up, that final robotic repetition of 'Why are you making me hurt you? I love you...' never fails to send a chill down my spine and cause a knot in my stomach. That' the sort of thing we're dealing with here.

Of course the more times I've heard it the more other lines cause that little bit of unease - 'loosely inspected', 'the cheapest way to keep his battery running is with booze', 'trouble shooting' - and contrary to what I'd expect they only cause more discomfort the more I hear them, the more I know they're coming. El-P's words are so perfectly chosen here, perfectly mimicking the cadence and content that adds up to nothing in the end of any number of product launches, always following up the devastating lines with a sunnier image, putting emphasis in just the right places, especially during the 'trouble shooting' section, to downplay the issues at hand. It's a master's class in marketing more than it is a song, working both as satire and as a perfectly written sales pitch in its own right. It always leaves me in awe that he pulls it off so naturally, adjusting his rapid-fire delivery to flow smoothly within his little satire without ever sounding strained while doing so. I'll have a lot more to say about El-P in tomorrow's album entry, but if you want a sort of bluffer's guide to why I have so much respect for him as a lyricist this is the place to look.

That's not to shortchange his production work here though, as that's as great as any of his beats from this same time period if not more so. It's dark, dense and detailed, not hing new there from El-P, but it stands out by being so stark in addition to all that. Even in the context of Fantastic Damage, probably a contender for the darkest sounding hip hop record of the decade, it stood out as being especially unforgiving in its atmosphere, and that comes down to just how little there is to the beat. Ignoring the chorus, with its rapid-fire drum intro, soaring synth stabs and multi-tracked vocals, there's nothing to the track outside of a synth pattern that sound like a car failing to turn over recorded in slow motion and replayed at 16 rpm and a very light drum beat. That's all you've got, but it's such a distinctive sound, almost industrial - and in the Neubauten sense here, not the Reznor sense - in a way but also distinctly beat driven, and such a foreboding one that it's hard to ignore. I remember hearing it for the first time and jsut being transfixed by the sounds of the backing track, wondering how that sort of sound got made and more importantly, what it was doing in a hip hop track - this being before I had a frame of reference for El-P of course. It still baffles me a bit to be truthful, but I can't argue with the results.

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