May 15th, 2001; Definitive Jux
Getting a pulse on Harlem, New York hip hop duo Cannibal Ox isn’t too hard. Take a track like “Raspberry Fields” for example. Ignoring the obvious Beatles reference, the song is the epitome of New Yorker grime, a haze of rubbery synths and skittering drum kicks cooked up in a apartment clouded by bong smoke and too many RZA albums. Ox MCs Vast Aire and Vordul Megilah spit stoned verses, Vast Aire rhymes a word twice, decries himself and runs back around his verse and changes the last line. Despite the swampy track and the muddy lyricism, the track evokes hip hop at its most playful and finishes as thoroughly enjoyable as just about any other tune imaginable.
This is the running theme of Cannibal Ox’s debut, The Cold Vein
. At first glance, it’s easy to get the impression that The Cold Vein
is a expression big city cynicism but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Every track is not just a blur of crumbling, post-apocalyptic beats but rather it’s crumbling, post-apocalyptic beats superimposed on top of a bleak sense of optimism. While it’s not happy and especially not upbeat, there’s a feeling of undeterred hope in just about every track.
The emotional balance is divided between the two parties involved in the album. Gloom comes per indie hip hop godhead El-Producto, a.k.a. El-P, who takes the productions reins for most of the album. Recalling work from his original foray into hip hop, Company Flow, El-P delivers with his vocabulary of faux-electronica beats, sometimes sounding vaguely industrial, sometimes sounding vaguely ambient, mostly setting stake somewhere between both territories. It’s the broad, nebulous area between electronica artists like Alec Empire and early Aphex Twin, except designed to cater to the style of NYC hip hop not all that removed from the work of the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA.
Tracks like album opener, “Iron Galaxy” and “A B-Boy’s Alpha” display his more ambient leanings with their blubbering synths and subdued break beats. “A B-Boy’s Alpha” displays other shades of ambience, a stuttering, tumbling piano sample, alien squeaks and squawks as well as DJ Cip One’s distant scratches. On the other side of the ball, “Vein” and “Ox Out the Cage” grind like rusty gears. Each comes prepared for battle with buoyant basses and hard hitting rhythms which cry out in a sci-fi inspired pulsation. These and all the other tracks, despite some understandable reference points, sound absolutely recusant within the Church of Hip Hop. El-P’s production style is as independent as his business practices, however, without the lyricists, the album is naked.
“I grab the mic like, 'Are you experienced"'/But I don’t play the guitar, I play my cadence,” Vast Aire jokes on the aforementioned “Ox Out the Cage.” The comparison to Hendrix isn’t mere bravado, though. Vast Aire spits with crass tenacity, not caring at all whether he rhymes twice really, but poking fun at those who would actually care about such things. His rhymes rarely contain specific structure, he rhymes when pleases, drops the beat, slows it down, flips it around, and throws around puns like, “The sample’s the flesh and the beat’s the skeleton/You got beef but there’s worms in your Wellington,” off of “Raspberry Fields.” In fact, on The Cold Vein
, nearly every lyric Vast Aire spits is near-flawless, whether raw abstraction or understandable street slang.
If we’re being critical here, Vodul Megilah is the weaker of the two on most tracks although he does manage to shine quite brightly on some tracks especially the album’s opening verse on “Iron Galaxy.” On it, he drops the classic line, “Vordul Megilah, the cannibal ate mics/Strive, live life, *** five, I want a-hundred and eight mics.” Take that, The Source. Vordul’s style is actually kind of similar to producer El-P’s own flow, he sometimes crams too much in each line, flowing with in a raw splurt of assonance and alliteration. Vast Aire’s presence does loom larger than that of Vordul Megilah but there never seems to be an ego battle on any tracks, each emceeing and willingly deferring the mic to the other. Comradery and chemistry like this is just another reason why Cannibal Ox and The Cold Vein continuously garner comparisons to the Wu-Tang Clan. While not completely unwarranted, both the MCs and production is unique enough to distinguish The Cold Vein
from its forebear, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers.)
The single greatest aspect of the album is the simple maturity at which the lyricists attack subject matter. Even the most tenured hip hop artists drive at immaturity with lazy, comedic skits and segues and lyrical pussy-chasing. Certainly relatable but not exactly the apex of artistic expression. The Cold Vein
divides itself from the rest of the crowd via the two hungry MCs who don’t ignore the violence, drugs and sex just express it in a way that isn’t seen often enough in hip hop. It’s probably among the least misogynist albums in the history of hip hop, especially with the sensitive-guy hip hop track, “The F-Word,” another clever pun among the dozens of others on the album. The track is another display of El-P’s ambient brush strokes. It’s got melancholy sweeping synthesizers and subtle electronic beeps and bloops which oddly help draw the emotion of Vast Aire lamenting being only a rejected friend by a girl. “The F-Word”’s love requiem is fairly unique on the album, though, which is mostly full of nostalgia, street-wise philosophy, and familiar battle rap swagger all tackled with a glowing sense of reassurance that is hammered home with the genius untitled album closer often referred to as “Scream Phoenix.”
On The Cold Vein
, the MCs trump the production, which is definitely not to say the album isn’t well produced. It actually is very well producer, however some of the beats fail to distinguish themselves much from one another. El-P’s approach is cohesive but not all together distinct from track from track, each beat retaining a sci-fi tinge that it none really escape, save for maybe “Painkillers.” Compare this to his solo outing, Fantastic Damage
, which has more individually unique tracks but less cohesion and consistency than The Cold Vein
. The Cold Vein
, though, is undoubtedly a very impressive affair when all the ingredients are combined. A great release that leaves the listener wanting more.