Cage is one of the few indy artists thriving today that was around during the underground resurgence in the mid-to-late 90’s. To this day, his debut single “Agent Orange” remains his most successful piece of work. Had I not heard “Hell’s Winter,” I would be saying it remained his finest piece of work as well. Shedding most of his Cage persona for his Christian Palko person, Cage has created an entirely different beast than we’ve come to expect from him.

Gone is the semi-psychotic, misogynist rapping about dust and mescaline, replaced by a man explaining why he ever rapped about that in the first place. It may have had something to do with being forced to inject heroin into his father’s arm as a child (“Too Heavy For Cherubs”), or just watching his father beat his mother and get dishonourably discharged from the army for selling h (“Stripes”). Or maybe it was just because of all the drugs the now sober Cage indulged in (“Peeranoia”). While the content is different, the style in which he delivers it hasn’t changed a bit. You’re still hard-pressed to find an emcee with more vivid and disturbing imagery in his rhymes. In describing a take-home-to-mom type girl in “Scenester” he claims “she put the razor to her arm and dug so many gashes/I coulda wrote this song between all the slashes/funny how you never opened a vein to out you/but your vain enough to think this song is about you.” His unsettling cinema is never better than on “Subtle Art of the Break-Up Song.” After a K-induced car crash on his girls birthday he laments; “I picked my face up with glass in it/can’t remember the last minute/glove box, my girl’s face, mashed in it/I called her name out but she ain’t respond/pulled her shoulder back, touched arm/her entire fucking face is gone…I pump my fist to bleed out to catch her and let the worms play/and tell her I’m sorry I gave her death for her birthday.”

Cage isn’t the only one shining bright during “Hell’s Winter,” his production team brings some of the illest production heard this year. A rare DJ Shadow appearance (“Grand Ol’ Party Crash), has him bringing the fury on the drum machine. Fellow instrumentalist Blockhead also chimes in with some extraordinarily fitting backdrops (“Too Heavy For Cherubs,” “Stripes,” “Scenester”). In the end it is really El-P and Camu Tao who stand out, producing or co-producing some incredible songs (“Good Morning,” “The Death of Chris Palko,” “Left It To Us,” “Lord Have Mercy,” and the title track). Much to my surprise, the albums weakest track comes courtesy of Rjd2. While the sleepy production from Rj on “Shoot Frank” doesn’t do much damage, the gut-wrenching hook and bridge ruins it. In fact, a few week hooks are about the only flaws on this album (see “Scenester” and “Perfect World”).

Cage’s defection from EC (who gets it on “Public Property”), to Def Jux, has made a world of difference in his music. Not only is his production much better, but he is making songs rather than just 3 16’s and a hook over a beat. Couple that with his improved flow, delivery, and incredible content and you’ve got yourself one hell of an album. Cage basically encapsulates the album in the final bars of the album’s final song; “Until the worms eat my flesh I guess they better burn me/these are the thoughts of a child I’d keep ’til 30/I lacked patience until I was packed with patients/in a mental facility, force fed all the wrong medication/prozac guinea pig I don’t feel bi-polar/but I got a folder that claims I am in a stack that reaches my shoulder/music my savoir in every instance/makes everyone of you a profit to my existence.” Now we truly know why his brain was infected by devils…