Cannibal Ox Blade of the Ronin

[iHipHop Distribution; 2015]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: cartoons, comic books, action figures
Others: DOOM, RZA, Jay Electronica

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. Or maybe it’s because Vast Aire and Vordul Mega have always traded in Star Wars quotes, silver-age comic metaphors, and Saturday morning metaphysics, which makes for a strange juxtaposition against their middle-aged station.

For example, Vast Aire’s first verse on Blade of the Ronin is a long, lumpen strand of G.I. Joe references. It’s a goofy choice for a man cresting the proverbial hill, and yet, the fact that this verse is not only sequenced first on the record, but also on a song titled “Opposite of Desolate,” no less, speaks to Cannibal Ox’s proud refusal to acknowledge the passage of time between The Cold Vein and now. The verse doesn’t reach particularly deep into Hasbro arcana, but it highlights one of Blade’s double-edged strengths: Cannibal Ox are purveyors of raw, unfiltered geekery, which is especially rare in a culture that does its best to homogenize such embarrassing predilections into mass-consumed and infantilized media diets. To wit, it would be unbecoming for an adult to play with Transformers figurines, and yet no one blinks an eye when they turn out in droves for the newest Michael Bay propaganda piece. Embarrassing though it might be, there’s far more merit in the arrested development imagination play of the former than in the cultural hegemony of the latter. In other words, there’s a purity to Blade of the Ronin, which provides a welcome alternative to the macho self-aggrandizement that constitutes most contemporary rap music.

But perhaps the most striking aspect of Blade of the Ronin is how little it sounds like the work of old heads. There’s little chest-beating or over-compensating, and a bare minimum of get-off-my-lawnism. Maybe it’s because Vast and Vordul have been weirdo outsiders their whole careers, even back in the halcyon Def Jux days, but it would be jarring for them to return as anything but underdogs. With time and isolation, their otherness has only increased, and at this point in their careers, there’s no question that Cannibal Ox are more Uatu than Galactus. If you listen closely, you can find hints of resignation on “Thunder in July,” “Gotham,” and “Water,” and in general, there’s a calm monasticism to the album that is more representative of maturity than, say, El-P and Killer Mike rapping about fuckboys. And to be fair, idiosyncratic though they might be, Cannibal Ox aren’t a one-note act; when they’re not referencing comic books and action figures, Cannibal Ox are repping for Islam and abstract maths, while generally avoiding the tonal and thematic inconsistencies that plague many religiously-oriented rappers — Vordul’s prescriptions for “Moroccan hash” notwithstanding. And if their soundscapes are less dystopian than on The Cold Vein, Bill Cosmiq’s production on Blade of the Ronin still makes for a convincing Def Jux forgery. There are moments of beauty, especially on the interludes, which belie the plasticine frivolity of the album’s lyrical motifs, but help to add depth to the proceedings.

I’d be overselling this record if I claimed that it was exciting, intellectually stimulating, or innovative, but at the same time, I’d be selling it short if I didn’t respect the fact that Blade of the Ronin is the first rap album I’ve heard in a very long time that pays absolutely no heed to market trends. None of these songs were written for the radio or the club, and none would be improved if/when blasted from car stereos on sweaty afternoons. Blade of the Ronin’s greatest success lies not in avoiding the commonplace, but rather in their commitment to pre-SDCC juvenilia, as well as to a more holistic sense of sincerity. Even if Cannibal Ox fall prey to a few too many groaner lines, there’s no pun so obvious or reference shoehorned in indelicately enough that could detract from the immersive quality of their overgrown manchild fantasias.

Links: Cannibal Ox - iHipHop Distribution

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