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October 28, 2005

{     Cage - Hell's Winter     }    

cage.jpg For fans of indie hip-hop, Chris Palko represents a longstanding source of confusion and frustration. Originally an affiliate of the former 3rd Bass crew through his first group, Mudbones, Cage gained underground cult-status through his 12's released on the legendary Fondle 'Em imprint in the late 90s. Kubrick-inspired confessionals, fist-fuck love ballads and THX-1183esque consumerism critiques showcased his high-pitch, multi-punch delivery and bugged-out, drugged-out lyrical bombast, making Palko one of hip-hop's original "ill white kids." The rep grew bigger with each single, and heads quickly put Cage's original, left-field science at the top of the class. Complex dark narratives, a sinister sense of humor, and an overall lack of giving a fuck spotlighted Cage's genius visual/verbal flair and troubled mindstate while simultaneously providing the prototype for a then-straight and narrow Detroit native to bite; grabbing the bottle of bleach for equally-platinum success. As Slim Shady became a media juggernaut, Cage found his suicidal mental illness and David Crosby-style drug habits taking hold of his career. The next few years would see Palko become a cartoon mockery of himself as it became obvious through several unimpressive full-length releases and disappointing beefs that his hunger was gone, often writing songs in 30mins for a quick paycheck. As his former associates fell by the wayside (Necro, High & Mighty, Copywrite), we kept rooting for CageKennylz to come through and shine on an LP with the same brilliance seen on his early works (see: Nas). Not saying these releases weren't without their highlights: the Weathermen supergroup, Ballad of Worms' Built-to-Spill samples and Girlfriend-In-A-Coma narrative, and the underrated Tame-One "Leak Brothers" collabo all stand-out. But these highpoints were scarce as the music, like the man, lacked focus, causing even his most staunch supporters to scratch their heads. And so kiddies, on some ol' Breaking Bonaduce shit, Cage dropped out, got sober, tied his shoes, and with a little help from long-time friend El-P, has released the finest material of his career in the most triumphant return since herpes. The changes that were needed in order to make Hell's Winter possible are evident, as it becomes clear that Cage is in a much different place artistically than in previous efforts. Gone are the rampant misogyny and over-the-top shock theatrics that had quickly become both a crutch and a liability for such a talented lyricist, as the corny attempts to 'out-shock' will now be left for eighth graders, magicians, and Marilyn Manson. Hell's Winter displays a mature voice who's turned his own laser-precise detail and brutal honesty on himself as these personal journals seem more Sage than Cage. This is Agent Alex saying all the things fans wished he would, from his own abusive childhood and bouts with drugs and depression to speaking on his former Smut Peddler-brethren High and Mighty and his regrettable Courtney Love-inspired career moves of the last 5 years. No punches are pulled as Cage bares his soul, coming clean in confessionals that not even Slug could make up. While the content has been flipped, the trademark delivery and swagger are still there, riding beat creations from some of indie hip-hops top producers (El-P, the always-amazing Blockhead, RJD2, and DJ Shadow). While the beats presented are more than sufficient, the meat is the lyrics and the music selected compliment Cage's words without overpowering the imagery evoked (think lettuce and tomato versus pickles in the Sandwich School of Sound Engineering). For an ambitious album that attempts to speak on so many things while also trying to resurrect the artist's career, the some-how cohesive Hell's Winter rips furiously from highlight-to-highlight, only occasionally stopping long enough to full-on knock your dick in the dirt. From the moment 'Good Morning' creeps through the speakers with trademark El-P production and classic Cage venom to quote Adrian Zmed: "Gentlemen, Start your boners." Showstoppers include the Weathermen-bukkake session "Left It to Us", the Crypt Keeper steez of "Subtle Art of the Break-Up Song" and "Lord Have Mercy", and the Blockhead-assisted MySpace testimonial "Scenester". While these are more than enough Tex Avery-style jawdroppers for any other album, the real money shot comes on "Grand Ol-Party Crash" where Cage unites bay legends DJ Shadow and Jello Biafra (sorry Too Short) for some ol' G.O.P. uber-alles. The result is just the classic you'd expect, an all-too-rare political nail bomb destroying all targets caught within its crosshairs. Cage's recent turn seems to have been the only logical step for him not only to survive as an artist, but as a human being. With Hell's Winter, he has been able to reinvent himself and finds himself in the best position of his rollercoaster career. Hell has indeed frozen over. And I still don't know what to wear with this Orange Alert.



While the dummy smacks make the most immediate impact, it is the shocking-but-true graphic explorations of Cage’s inner torment and abusive childhood that are the heart of this album, giving the work substance and depth. These confessions also serve as a testament to Cage’s MC skills in conveying such personal matters in an interesting way while maintaining his artistic integrity (this could’ve easily turned into some Mommy-Didn’t-Love-Me Frownie-Brownie shit). Although Bellevue’s other favorite MC (sorry Cage, Kool Keith runs that joint) may be accused of attempting to clean out Eminem’s closet, there is more at play here than being mad your moms and calling N*SYNC “fags”. Hell’s Winter exposes a method behind Cage’s madness through honesty and self-understanding, a humble approach compared to headline-grabbing Moby threats and Michael Jackson-baiting.

Posted by: Eric at October 28, 2005 3:13 AM

What's up Eric? Just read the review and had to leave you some love for another entertaining review. You really seemed to hit all the big stuff here that makes this album so special. I felt that this album not only brought Cage back to life, but was also a breath of fresh air for anyone that has been following the Def Jux label for sometime. Sure, there's been highlights here and there, but the last album they released of this caliber is probably from way back in 2002 with "Fantastic Damage." This LP gives all of us Jukies a little something to be excited about.
I definitely agree with you that this seems to be a much more mature Cage, not relying on shock value as much to stand out from the crowd. The only things could be considered of shock value on this album are all real-life experiences of his, which makes for an even more unique album. The lyrical content of every track is laced with the type of material I've been waiting for him to spit since I was wearing out my needles on "Radiohead" and "Agent Orange" way back in the day (has it really been that long?). All of the production is top notch, with Blockhead showing everyone why he is the most underrated producer in the game today. I mean, not even Camu Tao could screw this album up.
Anyway, I've written way too much for what was intended to be a short paragraph. I guess I'm just really geeked about this album because I've been waiting for this just as long as I know you have.

Posted by: dave at October 29, 2005 3:55 AM

just gonna quickly throw another log on this fire - i've been rocking this disc all week...

Posted by: shane at November 1, 2005 12:39 AM

Love this album. I anticipated it ever since I heard the title back in 2003 when CAgE was still on EC. When I heard he was signing to Def Jux I was even more intrigued to see how he'd hold up without Mi and E. September 20, 2005 was a good day to be alive although I had already played the promo about a thousand times I was really pleased with all the sick beats and rhymes. CAgE really goes deeper into his life and mind this time and throughout the album he really shines and he combines some of the illest beats and rhymes that can bring tears to the eyes and shivvers up spines.

Posted by: J-Dawg at November 8, 2007 11:32 PM
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