Album: Hell’s Winter
Label: Definitive Jux
Rating: 9.5 / 10
Reviewer: DJ MF
It’s not uncommon in contemporary music for the debut release of an artist to also double as the climax of their career. Usually, first albums are the purest output that you’ll see from an artist in terms of credibility and loyalty to their sound. For every ‘Illmatic’, there’s a ‘It Was Written’ (don’t get me wrong, a good album, but no classic), for every ‘Enta Da Stage’, a ‘Warzone’, for every ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx’ an ‘Immobilarity’.
Which makes finding a sophomore release that is up to the quality of the debut, if not above that quality, all the more refreshing. With ‘Hell’s Winter’, Cage has indeed pulled the trick.
In an ironic twist, ‘Movies For The Blind’ and ‘Hell’s Winter’ can be compared quite readily to ‘The Slim Shady LP’ and ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’, and not just because both Eminem (who notably slagged Cage early in his career) and Cage (who notably slagged Eminem on his first LP) are white MCs- but because they have what amounts to the same modus operandi- the first album is the whigged out crazy music gone rampant, and the second is the ‘this is why I’m the way I am’ album.
Except Cage has created by FAR the better albums.
On ‘Movies For The Blind’, Cage was a wittier and less abrasive (albeit only slightly less so) Necro, with bouncier beats and a bit more pop sensibility. ‘Hell’s Winter’ changes things up completely- it’s still witty, it’s still abrasive, and it’s still dark, but the darkness has been switched up to a more disturbing and real level- it’s less about getting mushroomed/PCP’d out and dreaming of killing your teachers, and more about the travails of living with a heroined out father and a mother undergoing a psychotic breakdown before your very eyes while growing up- topics covered on ‘Too Heavy For Cherubs’ and ‘Stripes’ respectively.
It’s not all mommy and daddy diatribes though- sprinkled throughout ‘Hell’s Winter’ is a veritable cornucopia of other topic matter. ‘Grand Ol’ Party Crash’ is a scathing indictment of the Bush administration, with some of the most vivid lyricism you’ll hear this year, as Cage flips narrative between Iraq and NYC from bar to bar, and Jello Biafra (yes, THAT Jello) tries on his George Dubya impersonation for the chorus-
I wake up to a caffeine cigarette vaccine
And bathe in water I wouldn’t drink before gasoline
Feel like a loser because I’m not in Fallujah
Painting a Land Cruiser with an Iraqi and taking his Luger
Whoever’s in the line of fire gets filled with democracy
Turn the corner, team leader neck up to the nose gone
This is not PS2 Socom
Jimmy stays so calm, shoots count nothing really
In his back, answers come flying out his stomach
Face down, then he’s face up in the bed, almost dead
Eyes slightly open, IV bag and no legs
Couple sandwiches, some bloody bandages
In a room full of amputee GI amateurs
He gets the word that his unit didn’t make it
Got a free ticket home but flatlined before he got to take it
There’s also the expected diss track to the High And Mighty, owners of his previous label, concerninig why he left, and how he was screwed out of money (‘Public Property’), a ‘Kim’-esque breakup song (‘Subtle Art Of The Breakup Song’), and a just plain old bugged out song concerning religious fanaticism and blind faith, at least in my opinion(‘Lord Have Mercy’). And no worries, the Cage of old, the cocky and slightly askew Cage from ‘Movies For The Blind’ is still present- ‘Good Morning NY’ and ‘Peeranoia’ showcase this to the hilt. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the absolutely spectacular Weathermen showcase ‘Left It To Us’, featuring Cage, El-P, Yak, Aesop Rock and Tame One.
On the production side, gone are the works of Mighty Mi, with their rubbery disco basslines and standard drum patterns. Instead, Cage enlists the help of his new Def Jux connects- Nighthawks partner Camu-Tao, El-P, Blockhead, RJD2 and DJ Shadow. All, even El-P (!!!), deliver amazing beats that fit the MC perfectly, even when in that discordant style favored by the Def Jux ‘sound’. Whether it’s the buzzing drone of ‘Left It To Us’, the rock stylings of ‘Good Morning NY’, or the underwater sound of ‘Too Heavy For Cherubs’, the album maintains a cohesive sound regardless of the number of producers, and is distinctly different AND better from the sound you’ve come to expect from Cage tracks.
All in all, this album IS better that it’s predecessor – be it beats, rhymes, or ideas. It manages to up the ante while keeping the elements of the ‘old’ Cage that made him a unique MC in a world of milquetoast peformers. A classic followed by a classic? Who’dathunkit?