Instead of simply resorting to ridiculous exaggerations, Cage, real name Chris Palko, draws inspiration from legitimate, impoverished experiences. A childhood that seems more crazed than conceivable, at the age of eight, Palko’s father was arrested by state troopers after threatening his family with a loaded gun. Palko, expelled from high school, looked on angrily as his mother remarried twice. Frank, Palko’s stepfather, beat him regularly, something that drove the young man to find solace in PCP, cocaine, LSD, cannabis and alcohol.
Arrested numerous times for drug possession and street fighting, Palko was sent to Stony Lodge psychiatric hospital for a short evaluation. Instead of staying there two weeks, he ended up staying for sixteen months. After being misdiagnosed and placed on a regimen of unnecessary and ineffective drugs, Palko became suicidal and attempted to take his own life more than once. At the age of 18, after being released, he pursued a career as a rapper.
Fast forward fourteen years…
Hell’s Winter, Palko’s second full-length solo LP, was (and still is) a magnificent collection of honest and utterly imaginative tracks. Receiving widespread critical acclaim, Rhapsody included Hell’s Winter on the list of “The 10 Best Albums By White Rappers”.
Instead of focusing on sensational rhymes, the rapper looks to humanize Chris Palko, a man as mercurial as he is flawed. Here, without any apparent hesitation, Cage delivers vivid tales from his childhood. On Too Heavy for Cherubs, Palko, in an almost gleeful tone, talks about helping his father shoot up: “Erratic then gone, I went from manic to calm/ Watching the yellow liquid drip back out of his arm.”
Respected for his lyrical shock-value, Cage displays a hunger and an unapologetic, almost animalistic tone. His intent is clear for all to see and more importantly, gripping. Shoot Frank, a dramatically produced showstopper, is an amalgamation of timid piano keys and soothing female vocals. Indie rap at its finest, largely thanks to a gut-wrenching hook and masterful bridge, Palko delivers a track that resonates so profoundly it hurts.
Numinous yet forcible, Palko’s graphic depictions from his childhood do a great deal to explain his emotional struggles, and the rousing, arresting beats provide the perfect backdrop for these moments of introspection. Stripes, a track focusing on Palko’s parasitical father, quickly turns into a clinical castigation of the man responsible for his excruciatingly painful childhood. The anger is so real it’s borderline palpable.
A sardonic take on his own life, Peeranoia sees Cage enter the realms of sarcasm overdrive: “Didn’t quit PCP, it quit me/ Reality rolled me up, took two puffs, then clipped me.” Analysing his own insecurities, the rapper does so in a manner that is both humorous and haunting. When Palko finishes by saying, “I need a new drug to make me okay, and a place to keep my shit when they come to take me away,” the listener realizes that Cage might be stronger than before, however he’s still a fragile soul, a man on the edge. A paradox of sorts, it’s like quantum physics: a particle and a wave existing at the very same time.
Hell’s Winter was the hip-hop album that defined 2005. A debatable assertion, you might say, especially since Blackalicious hit its artistic peak with The Craft. Nevertheless, on his sophomore LP, Palko narrates the most personal of tales, a lifetime devoured by demonic occurrences. Gritty and aggressively charged, this creative confessional makes Eminem’s childhood look like a stroll in the park. Too many rappers enjoy flexing their muscles, bragging about wealth and making grandiose statements. With so many ‘indestructible’ characters in music, it’s refreshing to see an artist reveal a vulnerable side, a side that can be affected.