Just because an artist matures doesn't mean his fans will. So while Chris Palko, a.k.a. Cage, may have experienced a personal epiphany that's taken his music in a new direction, he doesn't blame his fans for not wanting to come along for the ride.
The rapper's latest, Depart from Me, is hardly a rap album at all. Rife with indie-tronic synth and raging guitars (courtesy of ex-Hatebreed guitarist Sean Martin), it follows up on the direction hinted at by his Darryl Palumbo 2005 collaboration "Shoot Frank," off his second album, Hell's Winter. Only this time there are hardly any beats at all. There's also a more positive tone — though only slightly more positive — which is equally bewildering given the darkness Cage sings about.
His father was an abusive heroin addict whose crazy, rebellious streak he emulated. A wild kid who was beaten by his stepfather and uncle, Cage got into drugs and was committed by his mom to Stony Lodge psychiatric hospital as a teen. There, he was among the first test cases for Prozac and he attempted suicide with shoelaces and the tape from a Big Daddy Kane cassette. Such trials are recounted throughout his catalog, and his persona — a decadent, nihilistic, drug-addled MC — was cultivated in his single "Agent Orange" and 2002 debut, Movies for the Blind.
He dropped the drugs and degrading sexual undertone on Hell's Winter, but his latest even attempts to short-circuit some of the self-hate and angst. It's expressed on tracks like the punky "Fat Kids Need an Anthem," which keenly dissects his onetime food issues, and "Captain Bumout," which repudiates his old image, suggesting "there's more than being in a club, getting drunk, one of us throwing up and waking up like we're in love." The catalyst for both the change in sound and expression is his friend and protégé Camu Tao, who died of cancer last year.
"After he passed away, my entire world fell apart," Cage says. "I had never been so wounded in my whole life. I had been through so much. I felt like in life, as a little kid, gritting your teeth and clutching your fists, you can take anything, but then the grown man just is broken."
The change began several years ago, when the tourmates watched videos of their performances and became dissatisfied with the stale elements of typical hip-hop.
"We saw ourselves walking back and forth on the videotape trying to say 'ho," Cage recalls. "After a while, you get tired of doing the same thing over and over. And, then, it's either join in on the reindeer games or start your own."
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They watched videos of Black Flag and Iggy Pop, trying to adopt rock mannerisms. The change in music comes out of the same impulse, as Depart from Me represents an attempt to bring the sound in line with the stage show. To that end, Hatebreed's Martin joins Cage and his DJ on tour, playing guitar and keyboard parts. Even old songs are getting a facelift.
Meanwhile, Cage's spirit has already gotten one. Watching his friend die of cancer made his bleak attitude hard to sustain. "I couldn't come in and say, 'Hey, listen to my songs. I know you're dying, but listen to my songs about wanting to die,' he says. "I didn't know what to do, so I started making songs that were a little happier."
While he understands his fans' frustration with the new direction, he couldn't care less about pissy blog rants or reviews.
"When I was 16 years old I was selling crack and was a buck-fifty in people's faces with box-cutters. I wasn't sitting on the Internet telling people they're faggots because I don't like their music," Cage says. "People don't get it. The record's called Depart from Me, dude. You don't get it?"