Not many artists can take five years off in between albums. But I’d be lying to you if I said it didn’t take every year from 2007-2012 for me to finally fully understand and appreciate the brilliance of El-P’s last album I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. El-P’s long-awaited third album, Cancer4Cure is actually a tad more grounded than his previous work, but it is still up there with his best.

El again cues up his “dramatic intro machine” for album opener “Request Denied,” which consists of about 30 seconds of haunting instrumental until a beat “so dope it was made with real bits of panther” drops, and finally after about three minutes El-P drops his first bars in half a decade. He is a self-described, “holy fuck, what did he just utter? Marksman,” and his pen is sharper than ever with endless one-liners requiring extensive playbacks to catch them all.

On the production tip, El-Producto once again lives up to his name as his production technique manages to be vastly different from the Killer Mike album that he produced and came out a week ago. His best skill as a producer is his ability to make beats that are both nostalgic and futuristic, and combine those sounds in a single song and make it sound natural. Lead single, “Full Retard” is prime example of that, as it sounds like a Rick Rubin/Beastie Boys song, while having synth sounds that sound like they won’t be released until 2030. “Drones Over Bklyn” combines piano chops that sound like KRS could’ve rapped on 'em in the 80s with spacey synth and an alien voice saying “drones over Brooklyn” and the results are just simply, awesome.

As brilliant as El-P is at beat-making and writing ill multisyllabic rhyme schemes, his songwriting is as creative and innovative as there is in hip-hop. The subject matter and songwriting on this disc are probably the best of his career, and the less complicated production (for El-P, that is) really opens that up. On “Works Every Time” he raps from the perspective of a drug addict trying to kick his addiction and “has a fresh start on a new world and would give anything to go home.” On the Killer Mike assisted, “Tougher Colder” he has a chat with god after being overcome with guilt after killing a man in war. The opening line: “To the mother of my enemy, I just killed your son” is one of the dopest starts to a song I’ve ever heard. He refuses to snitch on his neighbor who murdered her abusive husband on “For My Upstairs Neighbor,” and he gets extra neurotic on “The Jig is Up” when he thinks there is no way his woman stays with him just because of love, and he is trying to figure out her ulterior motive.

We may only be five months into 2012, but it’s really hard to imagine an album supplanting Cancer4Cure as the album of year. The Camu Tao-dedicated “$4vic” might be the most moving song that I’ve heard all year, as he raps: “I’m still living like a $4 vic, that’s a lot of trouble for a little bit of win.” I almost gave up on El’s second album,  I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, and thought maybe that it just wasn’t for me. But something kept pulling me back to listen to it. With Cancer4Cure I was gratified on the first spin, but I’m sure it will take many more listens to fully understand El-P’s brilliance on both the mic and the boards.

- Zach Gase