Since the Funcrusher EP dropped in 1996, the hip-hop world has come to expect a certain sound from El-P. It is an abrasive, challenging variety of boom-bap that rubs a lot of people the wrong way, but is also a great conduit for the reality that El kicks in his rhymes. Today, it seems that with his last album, Fantastic Damage, he reached the apex of his 22nd century Bomb Squad sound and is now trying to branch out.
With his latest record, El has almost completely abandoned his signature sound. High Water is a collaboration with a group of jazz musicians on the Thirsty Ear label, led by the pianist Matthew Shipp, and it sounds very little like anything else in the El-P catalogue. It is a largely improvised recording in which sampled electronic sounds interact with acoustic instruments, a concept that is very promising considering El-P’s bravado in the hip-hop world, and the reputations of the other instrumentalists. Matthew Shipp has made a name for himself by being on the cutting edge of modern exploratory jazz music (in fact, one of his previous collaborations includes the underground hip-hop group Anti-Pop Consortium), and the entire Thirsty Ear label is generally noted for its willingness to experiment. So, High Water should be an exciting album, right?
Well yes, it should be. From the beginning of the album, almost until the end, it seems like it is Shipp and the brass section of Steve Swell and Roy Campbell who are running the show. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it often feels like the music lacks direction from El-P (or anyone else, really), and is a bit stagnant as a result. The second track on the record, “Sunrise Over Bklyn”, is a ten-minute vamp over two chords. Besides a few cool moments, there isn’t really enough material within the song to warrant “Sunrise’s” length. It doesn’t feature El-P or any of the players, and the only elements that can really keep a listener’s attention are volume shifts.
“Get Modal” is a more successful track. Featuring fresh, fast-paced drums and a nice piano riff, this song lasts just long enough to stay interesting. It also features a healthy amount of interaction between the instrumentalists and El-P’s samples, which is a pleasure to hear. Another track that works is “Intrigue In The House Of India”, which features several moments of cool polyrhythmic playing between Shipp and the slap-happy drums. But what really holds High Water back is the sound of the instruments. The recording or post-production process has left the piano and the drums sounding lifeless and flat, and considering the nature of the music, which emphasizes dynamics and timbre over melody and harmony, that is a big problem. Perhaps if there was more going on within the music, this wouldn’t be as big of a deal, but when there aren’t any distractions, it’s easy to be bothered by flaws.
High Water isn’t a bad album, it just isn’t very interesting. Though El-P seems to be diving headfirst into the world of improvisation and jazz, there really is nothing amateurish about it whatsoever. In fact, it seems that El made a lot of “safe” choices, laying back and letting the instrumentalists give the music direction. If he took more risks, as he has done throughout his hip-hop career, this could be a more rewarding record. But as it stands, it is just an alright album. Hopefully, El-P will try to get involved in the jazz world in the future, because given his past successes and his desire to grow musically, he could definitely do something a lot wilder than High Water.
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