Blade of the Ronin
The complications of delayed gratification
by Jericho Cerrona
When Harlem MCs Vast Aire and Vordul Mega resurrected from the ashes of New York crew Company Flow (led by rapper/producer EL-P, now with Run the Jewels) and unleashed the sprawling post-apocalyptic masterwork The Cold Vein in 2001, the hip-hop underground took notice. The cult of Cannibal Ox grew slowly over the years, resulting in that record now being widely praised as one of the genre's seminal offerings; a 75-minute game changer that actively resists easy categorization. It was an album that felt almost as if the music was being created in a spontaneous free-for-all of layered production and esoteric rapping; although upon closer inspection, its clear the lo-fi beats and ingeniously heightened lyrics were carefully calibrated for maximum impact.
Cut to 2015 and Cannibal Ox have finally unveiled the spiritual sequel that they had been promising, between failed kickstarter campaigns and awkward half-starts, for over a decade. If anything, Blade of the Ronin is a miracle for existing at all. A lot has changed within the landscape of hip-hop in the duo's absence; in fact, the very term "underground rap" now has the faint feeling of nostalgia attached to it, rather than the bristling excitement of a powerful movement it once had. The Cold Vein encapsulated a certain time and place; it sounded weird and different, something that couldn't exactly be pigeonholed, but that nonetheless felt distinctive enough to warrant sufficient attention. Nowadays, with genre-blurring at an all time high; from the eccentric post-modern hip-hop of Shabazz Palaces, to the "can we even call them hip-hop anymore" intensity of experimental trio Death Grips, Cannibal Ox's place in the discussion feels especially prescient. Hell, even Kanye West seemed to curb from Aire and Vordul's playbook on Yeezus, except Cannibal Ox never came off as smugly self-obsessed as West. Instead, they let their verbal gymnastics do all the talking.
On Blade of the Ronin, they haven't so much pushed their sonic M.O. further as appropriated its basic elements and upped the production for the next chapter in their careers. At times, the album feels and sounds very much like The Cold Vein; with it's boom-bap beats, 80s sci-fi analog synths, and Vast Aire's razor-sharp rhyming skills, but at 19-tracks, it doesn't quite have the cohesiveness of their former work. Additionally, the verse-for-verse interplay with Vordul that hit so hard before feels a bit thin this time around, especially since the latter is often absent for long stretches. Instead, Cannibal Ox rely more than ever on a parade of guest spots; including U-God, MF Doom, Elzhi, Bill Cosmiq, among others, who all add their own distinctive personality to the proceedings without ever stealing the show.
With an album this sprawling, its almost greedy to expect greatness, but when the narrative surrounding the duo, not to mention the mythos left by the cult success of The Cold Vein is so ripe with heightened expectations, its hard not to be somewhat disappointed by the results. By no means is The Blade of the Ronin a misstep; indeed, there are some classic Can Ox cuts here, including blistering opener "Opposite of Desolate" in which Aire spouts gems 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. Meanwhile, "Psalm 82" marries biblical imagery with greek mythology and surrealistic bombast to thrilling effect, including Cosmiq's dense production, which includes negro spiritual samples and a kick-ass boom-bap groove. "The Power Cosmiq" is further proof that Can Ox aren't merely has-beens running on fumes, with an ethereal female vocal refrain skittering around distorted guitars, cinematic keyboards, and dizzying poetic street talk. Another thing that stands out is the overall atmosphere of juvenile buoyancy at play here, which isn't really a criticism, but is nonetheless instructive in understanding the narrative. Now in their mid to late 30s, theres an expectation that the duo will be looking back fondly on their roots or worse, coming out and lambasting the young rap kids on the block for ripping off their mojo. Instead, Cannibal Ox operate as if nothing much has changed in the last 14 years, delivering a string of songs that emulate that late 90s sound, with one significant difference that just cant be ignored. Though the production by Cosmiq is generally on point, the loss of EL-P is huge; gone is the otherworldly, alien strangeness found on The Cold Vein in favor of slightly more polished and straightforward soundscapes. Of course, this is an unfair comparison, but a necessary one, since so much of Cannibal Ox's appeal is atmosphere-based.
What ultimately makes The Blade of Ronin and an essential rap album is the lyrical and verbal imagination on display. A stellar example of this is "Iron Rose", which also features a killer MF DOOM verse, where Aire spits rapid-fire nonsense about kids eating iron candy, metallic seas, and proclaiming that his favorite rock band is Iron Maiden. The lyrical dexterity here is constantly surprising, although the album's second half does tend to get bogged down in instrumental suites and songs that drag on too long. Still, there's no denying Cannibal Ox's ambition and commitment to the game, although the abstract beats and futuristic lyricism that once sounded so progressive at the end of the 90s now feels a tad warmed over. Much of this has to do with the legacy left by The Cold Vein and its widespread influence within the hip-hop genre, but The Blade of Ronin brings very little thats new or interesting to the table to differentiate it from that superior debut. This is unfair to be sure, and its not like anyone really expected an outright classic, especially considering that The Cold Vein came out of nowhere and generally went unnoticed before picking up steam in underground circles. Still, there's enough entertaining lycrism and inspired songwriting here to place The Blade of Ronin amicably next to its predecessor without complete embarrassment, and further highlights the duo's uncompromising skills in crafting intelligent, forward thinking hip-hop. Let's just hope we don't have to wait another 14 years for the next epic chapter in the Can Ox saga.