Cage | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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I'm sure lots of people thought hell would freeze over before this sick 'n' twisted New York MC went straight. It must be snowing in the underworld right now, because the erstwhile Chris Palko has ditched the drugs, and on the new Hell's Winter (Definitive Jux) he's dropped the viciously misogynistic lyrics too. His cartoonishly morbid horrorcore first turned heads on the 1997 single "Agent Orange," where he claims that he survived his own abortion when the suction canister was stolen from the garbage; his dementia topped out on 2004's Water World, a collaboration with Tame One that's all about smoking stuff dipped in embalming fluid. But then Palko decided he wanted to make an album his young daughter could listen to. That sounds like a recipe for no fun at all, but fortunately Cage's idea of child-appropriate material is not the MPAA's--and in fact his new approach sharpens his music, infusing it with a purpose and emotional resonance it's never had. He's not just rapping about repulsive, horrific stuff; he's rapping about repulsive, horrific stuff that's actually happened to him. He describes his six-year-old self helping his heroin-dealing dad tie off and lifts a barrage of nightmarish imagery from his 18-month confinement in a mental hospital, but "Stripes" is the most arresting of his autobiographical sketches--it's a grim picture of his parents' doomed relationship that captures both of them in its harrowing chorus ("The bastard inventor that bent her backwards in winter / With her back against the wall she can hear death singin' in her"). El-P handles most of the production, with an assist from Blockhead and cameos by Rjd2 and DJ Shadow; the tracks oscillate between poignant, almost desolate backdrops and the usual Def Jux sci-fi boom-bap. Hell's Winter is a triumph--Cage is finally using his talent to do more than raise his middle finger to the world. Camu Tao, Slow Suicide Stimulus, Mass Hysteria, the Aristacats, and DJ Crazy Glue open. Fri 11/18, 9 PM, Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace, 773-478-4408 or 866-468-3401, $15, 18+.

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