It was back in 1997 when Company Flow followed up their 'Funcrusher' EP with 'Funcrusher Plus,' an album which established Co Flow, Rawkus Records and much of the current underground hip-hop scene. 'Funcrusher Plus' wasn't a perfect album, but for importance it's almost unrivaled even now. "First is the originator - me" former Co Flow mainman El-P shouts on his long-awaited follow-up 'Fantastic Damage,' an album which, like 'Funcrusher Plus,' remakes hip-hop in a brutal new image. Under his own Definitive Jux label now instead of Rawkus, El-P has surpassed all previous accomplishments with this brilliant record.
With his first album's release El-P was known primarily as an emcee, but the instrumental 'Little Johnny From The Hospital' and his work on Cannibal Ox's excellent 'Cold Vein' have shown El-P to be a producer first and foremost. 'Fantastic Damage' works thanks to its overall sound: dissonant, abrasive, but always funky. The titular opening song is almost painful at first listen, the pounding beats and jarring scratches conflicting with El-P's lyrical goosesteps, which are further distorted by an ubiquitous echo effect on his voice. Like 'Stankonia,' this album extends its ear to electronic music of all sorts, crafting its machine soul from a peculiar space. Much of the album, from the energetic 'Delorean' to the morose 'TOJ,' gains its effect by overwhelming the listener with crashing beats and an irresistible morass of samples and DJ Abilities's cuts.
Most beats on the album are incredible enough to warrant their own review, each one cutting a niche in the album as a whole. The first single 'Deep Space 9mm' relies on a constantly interesting drum pattern embellished, like many tracks here, in a phenomenal ending by an explosion of noise. Its b-side, 'Tuned Mass Damper,' uses disconcerting vocal samples and a repetitive horn loop, with some offsetting tones thrown in there, to establish a claustrophobic, intense atmosphere. 'Truancy' uses sparser drums with crunching synths as a lull after 'Delorean's energy, before really taking off towards an intense climax, as many tracks here do. On rare occasion the music does slip up ('Dr Hellno...' comes to mind) but the exemplary nature of most songs makes 'Fantastic Damage' a production masterpiece, with El-P nearly peerless among underground producers.
Of course, El is still a lyricist at heart, and he makes his impact felt in this regard. A slightly more coherent Kool Keith, if you will, El-P's distinctive writing style gives an urgency to whichever subject he handles, be it old-school reminiscence ('Squeegee Man Shooting'), familial concerns ('Stepfather Factory,' 'Blood'), or wack emcees ('Delorean' and 'Contellation Funk' mainly). 'The Nang, The Front, The Bush and The Shit,' probably the best song here, draws a sketchy analogy between the Vietnam War and the underground hip-hop scene during a tour of duty, while 'Dead Disnee' sounds like 'The Forest' if Ghostface happened to be a sociopath. Vocally, El-P is no great shakes, but his impassioned delivery works more often than not, pushing him through his occasionally faltering flow.
As a fine lyricist and perhaps the best producer of the genre, El-P managed here to cook up a solo debut that lives up to all of its potential. Perhaps it'll take a listen or two to get into the rhythm of things, but once you get used to it 'Fantastic Damage' will impress to no end. This is one of the best albums of the last few years, and solidifies El-P's reputation as one of hip-hop's most talented artists.