As a tirelessly experimental lyricist and producer, El-P imbues his music with all of the density and violence of modern life. For 15 years the Brooklyn-based b-boy has dug into the harshest, grimiest corners of his own mind, creating hiphop both cerebral and visceral. At the same time, he's been a remarkably canny and crusading independent-label boss—his Definitive Jux has, since its inception six years ago, remained one of the most progressive and successful indie imprints of all time. Last month El-P—short for El Producto, born Jaime Melan—released his strongest work to date: I'll Sleep When You're Dead, the fourth album under his own name and the true follow-up to 2002's Fantastic Damage. The five intervening years may have been a by-product of El-P's many obligations as a producer and label boss, but they also yielded an album of astonishingly detailed depth and coherence.

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"Somewhere along the line I took a turn and got myself involved in a lot of other peoples' futures," says El-P. "But being in my position has allowed me to be a little bit more selective about the music I put out and take a little more time trying to perfect it, and I think it's worked, to a degree, to my advantage." Though the new album features guests as varied and potentially distracting as Trent Reznor, Cat Power, and the members of the Mars Volta as well as Def Jux artists like Aesop Rock and Cage, all of the human resources are ultimately synthesized into a very cogent El Producto vision.

What's most striking about El-P's work, and what is more in evidence on ISWYD than ever before, is his utter creative diligence—a highly focused commitment to mental presence in every musical moment. Where many rappers, even great ones, allow themselves charismatic coasting, predictable punch lines, and general style points, El-P never does; his lyrics are as devoid of cliché as any in hiphop. His production similarly eschews easy rides: Never complicated beyond service to the songs, his beats refuse to exist in the structural stasis of contemporary rap production.

"I never understand why they just keep [doing the same things]," he says of the majority of his beatmaking peers. "There're so many possibilities to me and I'm so interested in structure and where a song can go, where an album can go."

Thematically, ISWYD goes to darker places than the frequently malignant artist has gone before. Under the shadow of governmental villainy and environmental terror, the album follows the stories of dread- and poison-filled human beings scarcely maintaining their shit in an increasingly dark age in human history. "I'm obviously very influenced by Orwell, Philip K. Dick, [and] Ray Bradbury, and I feel like hopefully I'm the musical wing of what they were trying to analyze and think about," El-P says. "And those ideas are never really about the future, are they?" Indeed, ISWYD intertwines allegorical near-future horror stories with the psychic grit of very present city living to disquieting effect.

"I think that [the present political situation] is going to go much, much darker before it gets any better," he says. "These things don't just stop midway. If a car is going 100 mph on the highway, even if you put the brakes on it's going to skid for a long time before it stops. I think we're headed toward a mass police state; I think there's no question about it. And anyone who thinks that's a paranoid rant should just read one history book."

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Pointedly though, El-P refuses to accept victimization at the hands of these ever-threatening forces. By ISWYD's closing track, "Poisenville Kids No Wins," his bedraggled, soul-crushed internal dialog turns outward to reproach a peer who's allowed the reality of his surroundings to fold him into suicidal misery, demanding strength in the face of epochal evil: "Nobody's impressed with your imagined sacrifice device or insurmountable regret..." he raps, "cause many better men have gone for clearly better reasons and I starkly must remind you that you have not even been trying/We are always outnumbered but we were never out militia'd."

"I do think that we're on the verge of a huge, historical paradigm shift in our society, worldwide," El-P says. "And this is our time—this is our generation's time—to witness this, deal with it, and figure out who we are, where we stand, and how we stand up to these kinds of things." recommended

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