No one would ever accuse Chris Palko, the New York rapper who goes by Cage, of coming across as warm and cuddly. From the beginning of his career on the circuit, he's mined his own set of personal traumas for musical gold. He's long discussed his fucked up childhood to end all fucked up childhoods. As the legend goes, a child he was forced to wrap tourniquets for his heroin-addict father, and later held hostage at gunpoint by that same guy in a standoff with state troopers. Palko eventually developed his own serious drug habit and as a teen was committed to the infamously scary Connecticut psychiatric hospital Stony Lodge.
He managed to overcome all that and become one of the leading lights of the underground hip-hop scene, with a fierce delivery and a eriously vivid imagination that was hard to ignore. But rather than go with woe-is-me tales of self-pity, Cage's early rhymes were often vicious and bloody, full of revenge fantasies and vivid metaphors that extended into outer space. He would let you into his inner world just enough, and then slam close the final doors.
But if his earlier musical persona put up walls in front of walls in front of walls, that began to change with his surprisingly open 2005 album, Hell's Winter. And this year, he's practically laid himself bear with his searing new effort, Depart From Me. The bulk of the record was written during an extended battle with cancer by Cage's best friend, Camu Tao. Sadly, Camu passed away early last year, and Depart From Me was completed in the aftermath. As expected, it's no walk in the park.
Depart From Me is one of the most compelling albums of the year, but also one of the most difficult to get through at the first pass. If old Cage material could shock because its flights of grotesque but fictional fantasy, the new Cage shocks with its uncomfortable realness. The subject matter here delves pretty obviously into autobiography, and almost as upsetting as the tales themselves are is the sometimes angry-numb way in which Cage delivers them. "Beat Kids," for one, offers a frank tableau of rape and domestic violence. Then there's "Fat Kids Need an Anthem," definitely the only song I've ever heard by a male rapper to deal frankly with weight and body issues. And throughout, there are references to the late Camu -- the pain of that loss is palpable.
If it makes you squirm, Cage is doing his job. But rather than plunge a listener into a gloomy abyss, many songs on the album are inescapably catchy. Where his Definitive Jux labelmates have been hinting, in recent years, at a sort of genre-less mix of rapping over different musical textures, Cage has succeeded in fully fleshing it out. The tracks themselves veer all over the place, with everything from industrial-style thumps to '80s hardcore-style basslines and beyond. There are still beats, but not once will you hear a cookie-cutter boom-bap.
Sat., Dec. 12, 2009