Fantastic Damage (Def Jux)

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If you don't believe that underground hip-hop is enjoying a serious renaissance, just listen to El-P's brilliant solo debut. Maybe "enjoying" is the wrong word: The oh-so-appropriately-titled album doesn't make it sound as though it's enjoying much of anything, save for the ruin of listener-friendly mainstream rap.

In the midst of Fantastic Damage's sludgy production -- thick with clogged-artery bass lines and acidic rock samples -- El-P's vocals stand front and center, like a sea monster rising from the muck. His lyrical style -- more bark than flow -- avoids empty boasting in favor of apocalyptic diatribes, lacing his raps with a little Swiftian wit. "Stepfather Factory," for instance, is a modest proposal in the form of a press release from a company that's manufacturing cyborg stepfathers. The domestic promise turns dystopian, as the "perfectly realistic and even somewhat institutionally respected robotic relative" reverts to form, turning into a booze-swilling beast. The song's harsh, to be sure, but El-P delivers the doom and gloom with acerbic humor.

Better yet, the artist's bombast never keeps him from being catchy. "Deep Space 9mm," one of the album's singles, is thick with bells and guitars, employing an irresistible hook that'll have you trying in vain not to sing the chorus in public: "I'll be right here holding my nuts/Right here holding my nuts." Okay, so Michelangelo he ain't.

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