Introducing ‘Notes from Mr. Sandman‘ – a column slapping a spotlight on lyricists overlooked, under appreciated, or just plain criminally slept on. Or like a man named Nas once said, “I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death.” Enter Mr. Sandman with what y’all missed while chasing the REM dragon.
Sometimes all it takes is just one album for an artist to go from mangy scrub to shining all-star. And in the case of Cannibal Ox – the wicked collaboration between lyricists Vast Aire and Vordul Mega and producer El-P – that statement couldn’t be more true.
The Cold Vein, the trio’s one and only album, is a perfect hailstorm of beats and rhymes. A buzz saw that cut traditional hip-hop clean in half. El-P ditches the samples in favor of darker, more synth-heavy beats, which rain down from every direction and burn like seething battery acid. It adds a thick industrial layer of grit and grime that makes every song unfold like it were the apocalypse.
The opener “Iron Galaxy” (their sullen ode to New York City) opens with a contorting melody that spirals down from the black hole of El’s mind. It lends itself to a giant ship landing from another galaxy like it were the opening sequence to the latest Phillip K. Dick adaptation. Vordul stands atop dubiously and spits pure testimony: [LISTEN]
Vordul is a beast and charges forward with the ferocity of a rhino. He has a definitive New York style, but it’s his ability to turn phrases ever so slightly that makes him a hall-of-famer. It’s unusual and unorthodox yet entirely familiar like playing the guitar but with your left hand. His monotone delivery meshes well with the futuristic beats creating a strange dystopian feel. The only time he slows down is to make way for Vast Aire who in contrast to Vordul is slow and meticulous snaking around his verses slowly like a water python.
In “Pigeon” Vast Aire’s lyrical acumen shines. It opens with what sounds like an alien tuning his galactic guitar, and finishes with Vast Aire eulogizing his struggles comparing himself to a pigeon trying to survive in New York. That unusual premise is then backed up by an impressive display of lyricism: [LISTEN]
The Cold Vein was exactly what rap needed in the early 2000s, a dark industrialized sound to usher in the dawn of the technological era. It represented the future of rap, and has birthed dozens of styles since. There are talks of a new album, but without El and with so much time having passed – 13 years – it’ll be a hard sell.
In the interim, there’s always The Cold Vein and its timeless sound. And like the closing song “Scream Phoenix” implies, so long as there’s honor in rap, Cannibal Ox will always have a place at the table: [LISTEN]