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. Vast Aire and Vordul Mega painted a vivid and surreal picture of New York street life.
In the years following, Cold Vein gained quiet momentum in the underground while both Aire and Mega pursued solo careers. In 2010, El-P shuttered the windows of Def Jux to focus on his solo work. In interviews and online, he repeatedly stated he wouldn’t be involved in a second Can Ox album. Aire and Mega remained professionally connected, guesting on each other’s tracks, but it wasn’t until 2013 that a Cannibal Ox reunion first stirred, culminating in the release of the Gotham EP. In February, 2013, Cannibal Ox launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a sophomore album. A year later, fans who have been waiting 14 years finally have a Cold Vein follow-up.
It’s no understatement to say hip-hop has changed in 14 years, but the gift of the avant-garde is that what sounded outlandish and nearly impossible before, today sounds inevitable. While Blade of the Ronin never threatens to eclipse Cold Vein, it is a deeply diverse and satisfying second chapter.
With El-P out of the picture, no one could expect that the production on Cannibal Ox’s second album would be so distinct. Filling in big shoes, BILL COSMIQ performs admirably, keeping all 19 tracks consistent. His boom-bap beats over cinematic synths and string samples adds melodic flourish to ringing verses from the MCs. Bold but rarely flashy, COSMIQ (fitting well with guest production from Black Milk) does the work without threatening to steal the show.
One of the strongest features of Cold Vein was the weighted verse-for-verse balance of Vast Aire and Vordul Mega. On 2013 comeback single “Gotham”, Mega had the same tight delivery as before, but less than a year later he often sounds thin or understated. Blade of the Ronin is all Vast Aire. His delivery still keeps the razor edge that twists a parade of images populated by characters from from pop culture, cosmology, Five-Percenter theory, and a mythology all his own. Lyrically, Blade of the Ronin lacks the cohesive, vibrant imagery of Cold Vein, but Vast Aire remains on point, and guest spots from MF Doom, U-God, Elzhi, and others add to the layers of the tapestry, though they never distract from the Can Ox core.
With 19 tracks, Blade of the Ronin contains a number of bangers, but suffers from some weaker material that dulls the blade’s edge. “The Power Cosmiq” and “Thunder in July” stand out among the early tracks, with guest appearances from Kenyattah Black, and Space, Swave Sevah, and Elohem Star, respectively, adding depth to choruses and guest verses. Throughout, songs that start with compelling production and heavy early verses weaken as they go on. It’s as if the Can Ox crew had 75% of a good idea that never resolves; tracks literally fade out instead of slamming to an end on their own momentum.
The album’s second half is back-loaded with tracks that send a strong message back to the ancient gods of the early 2000s. “Harlem Knights” is classic Can Ox, as Vordul Mega’s breathless opening verse threatens to devour the beat. Vast Aire joins in the fray with a parade of imagery as he ruminates on the nature and power of the color of his skin.
As the album’s most seamless combination of otherworldly lyricism and inventive production, “The Fire Rises” feels like the final culmination of the Cannibal Ox project. It represents the most complete vision, with a tension-building intro setting the stage for over a minute and a half of Vast Aire shredding verses. Yet again, the song simply trails off at its end, and Vordul Mega is nowhere to be found.
Fourteen years is a long time to wait for a follow-up, and while Blade of the Ronin doesn’t double down on the trail-blazing vision of its predecessor, it is a more than capable sequel to a genre classic. Vast Aire sounds as good, if not better, than ever rhyming over BILL COSMIQ’s textured production. Vordul Mega’s muted presence is concerning, as the balancing act seems more one-sided now. But popular culture has finally caught up to the aggressive abstract beats that El-P and the Def Jux crew trademarked in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and the time feels right for Can Ox to finally receive their dues.
Essential Tracks: “Thunder in July”, “The Power Cosmiq”, and “The Fire Rises”