This week on Fresh Pair, El-P stopped by Uproxx Studios in Los Angeles to talk shop with Just Blaze and Katty Customs, breaking down the influence ’90s rap duo EPMD had on his own production style, getting deep on sneaker culture in his beloved NYC, and his days on the city’s underground scene.
That makes this week’s list especially daunting. How do you break down a 25-year career into just a handful of tracks and then call those tracks “the best?” As Jaime and Just point out in this episode, calling something the “best” is sort of a futile gesture, because everyone has their own standards and no one will ever agree. With that said, I still had to impose some rules on myself just to keep myself from going crazy.
Since a lot of El-P’s most iconic work comes from group projects alongisde Company Flow and Run The Jewels, we’ll limit ourselves to one song from each group to keep this thing from spiraling out of control and maintain the focus on El-P himself. So, most of this list will be from his three solo albums, with two absolute standouts from his group efforts. Now, without further ado, El-P’s best songs, ranked.
10. “Deep Space 9mm”
The lead single from El-P’s 2002 solo debut is highly emblematic of his style as a whole at the time (and since). The beat’s busy as all hell, with DJ scratches, sci-fi buzzers, and crashing percussion, while his rhymes match, full of metaphorical, dense, abstract wordplay. Maybe a little too abstract and dense; the clutter can sometimes get distracting, which was another hallmark of El-P’s earlier output.
9. “Stepfather Factory”
So, like a lot of El-P’s solo output, the rhyme schemes are all over the place in this diatribe against the dissolution of the family unit, but the industrial-sounding, haunting instrumental and devastating storytelling are no less effective for it. He’s at his relatable best when he peels back the curtain on those angsty motivations.
Appearing on 2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, “EMG” is probably the closest El-P ever got to sounding like his influences in that decade, opting for a stripped-down approach to the beat (more cowbell!), and a more straightforward rap delivery that wouldn’t be out of place at your local hip-hop shop’s Friday night open mic cipher. It’s also a breath of fresh air in a suffocatingly paranoid and anxious album.
7. “Population Control” with Company Flow
The absolute epitome of late-’90s, mean-mugging, backpack rap. With an eerie beat straight from the Black Lagoon — the Creature is right behind you, by the way — and aggressive, anti-everything lyrics, this track from Co Flow’s 1997 debut Funcrusher Plus is likely indirectly responsible for a lot of rap fans’ contemporary faves even being a thing. No Co Flow, no Rawkus; no Rawkus, no Black Star; no Black Star… who knows where J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, or dozens of other names in rap would be?
6. “Oh Hail No” Feat. Mr. Motherf*cking Exquire & Danny Brown
By the 2010s, El-P had nailed down a more palatable sound that still reflected his particular rebellious outlook and left-field aesthetics. On 2012’s Cancer 4 Cure, he expanded the scope of output, and a new crop of MCs — ones likely at least a little bit influenced by him in the first place — began to rub off on him lyrically, sharpening his pen skills. “Oh Hail No” is a perfect example.
5. “Flyentology” Feat. Trent Reznor
Only El-P could sound so hard wrestling with religion. The conclusion is ambiguous; after all, while there may be no atheists in foxholes, all the prayers in the world don’t stop planes from crashing. If nothing else, this I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead standout gives an insightful peek into El-P’s anxious worldview, which explains a lot of his music.
4. “Delorean” Feat. Feat. Aesop Rock & Ill Bill
Look, man. At the end of the day, the essence of the backpack era was getting together and talking sh*t — the sort that you just couldn’t hear on the radio. This Fantastic Damage posse cut is very much the distillation of that philosophy.
3. “Tougher Colder Killer” Feat. Killer Mike & Despot
See above, but like 5,000 years in the future. On a spaceship flying through a Warhammer-esque imperialistic war over galactic territory. Killer Mike takes it here. Cancer 4 Cure is kind of underrated.
2. “The Full Retard”
El-P’s most successful solo track to date, the unfortunately named “The Full Retard” is when he perfected his whole schtick. His flow is perfect, the beat is boisterous and bold without being obnoxious, and the hook (such as it is) acknowledges the futuristic outlook of El-P’s music explicitly for the first time in his then 15-year career.
1. “Legend Has It” with Run The Jewels
While the production on RTJ4 is likely El-P’s best, there isn’t a song in the group’s catalog with the impact of this RTJ3 gem. A lot of that is probably the effect of the song appearing in the Black Panther trailer in 2018, but on the other hand, it’s also very much the moment when Run The Jewels went from internet favorite to mainstream hitmakers.