Release Date: Mar 3, 2015
Record label: iHipHop
Cannibal Ox :: Blade of the RoninIron Galaxy Clik/iHipHop DistributionAuthor: Sy ShacklefordVast Aire and Vordul Mega, the Harlem hip-hop duo known as Cannibal Ox, dropped their debut album, "The Cold Vein", nearly 15 years ago. It was the first full-length album to be released on the now-defunct progressive NYC-based hip-hop label Definitive Jux. Produced entirely by Def Jux label-head, El-P, the album received near-unanimous critical praise.
Rap is arguably one of the least hospitable genres for artists past a certain age. While pop-punk and boy-band fans continue to support the crow’s-foot-and-water-weighted groups of their youth, rap fans often put their GOATs out to pasture, even while they themselves get older. This might explain why the long-delayed return of Cannibal Ox has been so quietly received, despite releasing what is commonly considered one of the most seminal rap albums of the Y2K-era.
Although it took Cannibal Ox a decade and a half to finally unsheathe their sophomore LP, the New York duo's edge is sharper than ever on Blade of the Ronin. Sure, Vast Aire and Vordul Mega's preceding album, 2001's The Cold Vein, was innovative for its raw production and the off-kilter tone of the MCs, but it was also checkered with pun-laden lyrics, including Aire's lines about life being not nice but "mean" and death "being the median" on the older album's opening track, "Iron Galaxy. "Since then, Aire has vastly honed his craft, wielding viciously creative words on the Ronin opener "Opposite of Desolate," like: "You will never see the vipers when they come out the sand / You will never see the cobra head, as it expands / I change my skin like Sartan.
When Samurais return in the real world, it's usually with considerably less power and importance, but there's no shame in the game of the 2015 edition of Cannibal Ox, and actually, there's plenty of pure fire. Back 14 years after their debut, and with producer Bill Cosmiq filling the shoes of the departed El-P, Blade of the Ronin comes shockingly close to the sound and the excitement of their 2001 effort The Cold Vein, and offers the same kind of combination of street knowledge and sweet punch lines, all delivered over rickety yet compelling beats. MF Doom, Elzhi, and U-God top the album's impressive guest list, while Cosmiq steps aside for one cut, handing the great "Blade: The Art of Ox" over to the skilled hands of Black Milk.
Cannibal Ox has been on the lam since their debut in 2001. The Cold Vein gave them a reputation before infighting and creative differences with El-P, the album’s producer, made the prospects of a follow-up doubtful. Cooler heads eventually prevailed more than ten years later, and after careful crafting, The Blade of the Ronin is a manifestation of their reunion.
At the turn of the millennium, the rappers on New York-based indie label Def Jux conducted odd science experiments on hip-hop, making restless, lyrically knotty records that pushed the art form towards new extremes of obliqueness. One of the label’s earliest and most beloved releases was The Cold Vein, the debut LP from Cannibal Ox, a duo made up of two Harlem rappers with names like Transformers characters (Vast Aire and Vordul Mega). The group’s sound was vaguely familiar, with clear roots in Wu-Tang, Gravediggaz and Kool Keith, but it was distinguished by moments of sharp surrealism, linguistic deconstructions, and a deep underlying sadness.
In 2001, rappers Vast Aire and Vordul Mega joined forces under the Cannibal Ox banner and released their debut album, Cold Vein. Despite limited commercial impact, it was immediately, and rightfully, heralded as an instant classic of underground hip-hop. Produced by Definitive Juxtaposition label founder El-P (of recent Run the Jewels fame), Cannibal Ox combined El-P’s genre-warping syncopated beats with nimble lyricism that tread the line between street-lean provocation and abstract poetry.
Sometimes an artist’s stature in a culture grows way beyond their control, when one good release unexpectedly catches fire and leaves those responsible in an uncomfortably powerful position. Cannibal Ox, who released a legendary record, The Cold Vein, in 2001 and subsequently stayed quiet for much of the following 14 years, most likely felt serious pressure to do justice to their incredibly small but passionately enjoyed legacy with Blade of the Ronin. But whether they realized they weren’t the rappers they once were or they wanted to move on to new territory (or — the most likely scenario — a little of both), their long overdue sophomore record is surprisingly different.
Cannibal Ox’s 2001 debut, The Cold Vein, was a jaw-dropping masterpiece of left-field hip-hop. Its razor-sharp beats, Blade Runner-esque synth soundscapes and trenchant, bleakly poetic rhymes established its reputation as the definitive independent rap release of the decade. Fortunes have been less than kind for the duo (Vast Aire and Vordul Mega) since that epochal debut.
The Cold Vein, Cannibal Ox’s 2001 debut, was years ahead of its time. Like Wu-Tang Clan had just landed from outer space, Harlem MCs Vast Aire and Vordul Mega mixed a slow and lyrical style that was all New York with a sound that came from Venus; a heavy mixture of metal and sci-fi influences. Now, after a 14-year absence, the pair are back with the 19-track Blade of the Ronin, a pretty straightforward piece of boom bap hip-hop that sounds less like the future than the past.
Cannibal Ox's 2001 debut album The Cold Vein was New York hip hop given the bumps by a clutch of skin-peeled T-800s, shaken by ice-core electrics and keys clawed from the crust of Ganymede. It was supremely slick but spooked, too, like EPMD gone goth on a Coney Island ghost train, or Wu-Tang's paranoid prose filtered through future-facing mythology as well as razor-edged expressions of domestic difficulties. Naturally, the album barely brushed the mainstream, only accumulating respectable sales over a period of several years.
Cannibal Ox:Blade Of The Ronin Cannibal Ox are one of those Salinger-grade acts who followed up an instant classic full-length with a silence long enough to seem like a breakup and rustling with just enough rumors to keep hope flickering. During that late-‘90s to early-‘00s moment when “underground rap” had enough of a shadowy presence in on both sides of the now-defunct indie-mainstream aisle to seem like a cohesive genre, the NYC duo’s sole LP, 2001’s The Cold Vein, defined an era, a sound, and an ethos. But, largely on the strength of that record, the times have caught up to Can Ox: formerly their work was most fully realized of many attempted updates on Public Enemy’s apocalyptic sonic M.