If hiphop is an intersection where converging paths meet, Cage was unceremoniously dumped on the side of the road. Neither taking on the world with balled fists like Dead Prez, nor simply taking it all in (like pretty much any mainstream artist), Cage is an accidental emcee, and hiphop is a tool to exorcise the lifetime of pain that pins him down.
Credit the New Yorker for penning the ultimate moment of emotionally gushing backpacker rhyming in "Ballad of Worms," a seeming throwaway track that turned up a few years back on the Eastern Conference All Stars III compilation. A harrowing tale—he knows no other—it centers on the final days of his physically deteriorating girlfriend, left hollow on the cusp of death by meningitis, locked inside a claustrophobic, shades-drawn apartment. As the situation warrants, his lyrics are harsh and unforgiving—"She's barely alive and taking life from me/With no appetite but the meningitis is still hungry/Wants to make love/But I had to substitute it with holding hands while we take drugs"—but it's the unlikely sample that truly makes the song: Built to Spill's "I Would Hurt a Fly." This is quite possibly the only time that Doug Martsch's chirped chorus ("I can't get that sound you make out of my head/I can't even figure out what's making it") will find its rightful place among hiphop beats and a wounded emcee's desperate plea.
So if this is the man at his finest moment, what about the rest? Born Chris Palko, his life is a well-documented tale of constant pain (the press materials include a timeline of childhood mistreatment), tormenting abuse, and psychiatric hospitals; there's a cameo by 3rd Bass' Pete Nice in there as well. Yet the chatter is drowned by the sound of skeletons still rattling in Cage's closet. While his Midwest foil, Eminem, had a similar foundation of pain from which he molded the successful Slim Shady, Palko just wallowed in his sorrow. His recordings sounded like suicide notes set to beats, and no matter your investment in his horrific struggle, it weighed on you. You can only run your fingers along the scars for so long before you lose interest in the suffering.
But in the midst of Palko's funeral procession, he garnered an unlikely cheerleader for his cause: Shia LaBeouf. Yes, the same nine-and-a-half fingered actor that ruined Indiana Jones (and visited Autobot heaven) became the de facto spokesman for Cage's murky rhymes and seemingly valiant struggle. Promising a biographical film, which is supposedly in the works, LaBeouf even directed the video for "I Never Knew You," the lead single from Cage's forthcoming Depart From Me. Billed as a sea change for the artist—it's not—the album promised a new lyrical pace, seeing as how Palko is a now a grounded father, no longer the wounded teenager hemorrhaging emotions through song.
In reality, Depart From Me is a lopsided affair of incomplete ideas and ambitious orchestration that ultimately weighs Cage down in a way his past never quite would have. His mumbled flow on the gloomy "Eating Its Way Out Of Me" is unfocused, if not outright confused, while "Dr. Strong" feels like little more than an updated take on Suicidal Tendencies' "Institutionalized," but without a frosty can of Pepsi at the end of
the rainbow. It's not an entirely pointless
endeavor, however. Opener "Nothing Left
To Say" is solid, while the bratty "Kick Rocks" just might be the world's only post-rehab party-jam. It's a good song, but it would have been nice to hear more of the promised substance from Palko at this stage in his career.
Sorry, Shia, even you can't save this one.