14 years after The Cold Vein, expectations are high for Cannibal Ox’s second album, Blade of the Ronin. That’s probably both an under and over statement, because, while that debut was stellar, fans spent the many years afterwards hoping for a follow-up but only receiving decent-ish solo albums from the group’s members, Vast Aire and Vordul Mega. Honestly, I gave up on these guys a long ago. Even though those solo albums often had a song featuring the other duo member, I still couldn’t foresee them rejoining to release something worthy of The Cold Vein. So when a friend showed me a single from Blade of the Ronin a few months back (sorry, I can’t remember which song it was), I played it hoping for that greatness but realistically expecting much less. And it squarely met those tempered expectations. How about the rest of the album?
First things first: Blade of the Ronin has no El-P presence, at all. As the producer for the entire Cold Vein album, and guest rapper on a few songs, he was practically the third member of the group back then. This time, Bill Cosmiq handles all the production except for one song that Black Milk is responsible for. Wisely, Bill Cosmiq is not attempting to replace El-P. His beats still capture the gritty environment that is urban New York City, but they are closer to conventional boom-bap, and have none of the industrial sound that distinguishes many of El-P’s experiments. It’s definitely a drastic change, but not altogether unpleasant. El-P is missed but Bill Cosmiq does a great job in his stead.
However, I can’t be so positive about the rhymes. Vast Aire’s style never impressed me, in fact, I should be honest and say that at he’s pretty annoying. His voice and delivery are fine, but his writing has simplistic rhyming, punchlines that aren’t clever, and references that I rarely understand and never care to research. To put it another way, trying to understand each line is tedious and not worth the effort, and paying too much attention comes with the extra benefit of realizing how cringe-worthy his punchlines are.
Vordul Mega’s is different but leads to a similar problem. He’s what I call a list-rapper, like Roc Marciano, Action Bronson, and Raekwon at times. Except where every item on those other guys’ lists might be represented by a line or couple lines, a few words are sometimes all you get from Vordul before he’s off to the next thought. And he likes to leave out the exact word you’d need to build understanding. So with him, some isolated lines may make sense but grasping his overall meaning takes a mountainous effort.
Vast Aire on the left, Vordul Mega’s in the middle, I think. No idea who the third guy is.
I accepted that work, for Vordul, when the music was about a topic I cared about. That was on The Cold Vein, when the best songs were about living in the slums of Harlem or being in a drug haze.The songs’ titles, hooks, and Vast Aire’s simple verses gave me enough of the overall idea that I could figure out Vordul Mega’s verses. But both rappers seem to have degenerated in their off-time from Cannibal Ox. Vast Aire’s raps have become even more uninteresting, and Vordul seems to have lost the fire for rapping. His voice is monotone and his flow isn’t nearly as interesting as it was before, so his always dense and obtuse verses are even less compelling now:
formalities of certain chances and varying circumstances
in search of advancing amidst, the pivotal point
integral clique and digitally when spitting
never that, vague in transmission
getting off-ways like Jet Moto
Imagine that being said with no fervor at all, on a song where everyone else is bragging, and maybe you’ll see why I have zero interest in mining for meaning. That song, Blade: The Art of Ox, features the Artifacts murdering everybody else with great verses and U-God reminding everyone that he’s the weakest Wu-Tang link.
Carnivorous actually has a topic, that the ghetto makes people into predators, but again our guys get out-rapped by their guest. Elzhi brings a solid verse describing a shooting in detail and using as many animal puns and references as he can muster. Meanwhile, Vordul describes himself, as an animal, hunting prey, and spends only one line weakly closing the analogy’s loop by saying that police and their dogs are behind him. And Vast Aire just brags about himself. We might have reached a hip-hop milestone here, a song where the guest sticks to the concept better than the host artists!
Similar to those verses, songs like Iron Rose and Thunder in July go nowhere, failing to do their beats justice. Damned if I can explain what they’re about, and damned if my brain didn’t melt trying. Vordul seems to attempting but failing to make a point and Vast Aire could give a shit less about the concept on most songs.
The best times on Blade of the Ronin are the examinations of ghetto life, especially Harlem Knights’ recollections of growing up poor in a crime-riddled neighborhood, and Vordul’s verse on Opposite of Desolate. Even Vast Aire managed to keep my attention on the former song, but his bombastic verse on the latter is pretty worthless.
It seems that these two haven’t recaptured their old formula, nor have they found a worthy new one to use on Blade of the Ronin. Too often Vordul is reaching for a concept that Vast Aire has no interest in attacking, breaking the chemistry that I described earlier as being necessary for my understanding and enjoyment of The Cold Vein. So because Vast Aire’s empty words sit in the forefront of my mind, and the beats are much less “weird” than El-P’s, these songs feel more conventional than past Cannibal Ox music. But conventional is not what these guys do well. Clearly. Maybe El-P was necessary after all.
- Harlem Knights
- Opposite of Desolate
- Vision ft. Quantum
- Blade: The Art of the Ox ft. Artifacts and U-God