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Review: Cannibal Ox and the Return of Samurai Rap on ‘Blade of the Ronin’

8
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: March 3, 2015
Label: IGC

See, the big question isn’t if Cannibal Ox would ever get back together. Thirty-seven-year-old, gruff-voiced headliner Vast Aire and 35-year-old, introspective sidekick Vordul Mega have never stopped guesting on each other’s solo albums in the 14 years since their underground-igniting debut The Cold Vein, and always big-up each other as lifelong friends in interviews. The question is if Cannibal Ox could exist without the futuristic production of El-P, the former Company Flow misanthrope who is currently happy as a clam ruling the Court of Internet Opinion with fellow 2001 holdover Killer Mike in the 2014-conquering superduo Run the Jewels.

The Can Ox story isn’t so cut and dry, and a happy ending remains to be seen. Google around a bit and you’ll find a MySpace post from 2009 where Vast claims that producer/Definitive Jux label CEO El-P didn’t pay the duo for any of Vein’s runaway sales until they lawyered up, and that he was a control freak at the time who wouldn’t let them use outside producers and even tried to police how often they used the word “nigga” in their rhymes. Later, El-P told iHipHop he’d rather “wash his face with napalm” than dignify it with a response.

Flash forward to 2013 when Cannibal Ox tried to fund their second album ever via Kickstarter and fell substantially short of their (kinda absurd) $30,000 goal. On top of it all, Aire recently described his relationship with Vordul as kind of a Big Boi/André thing: “The reality is Vordul isn’t as social as I am.” He even went as far as to say that Cannibal Ox probably shouldn’t be referred to as a duo.

So where does all this leave Blade of the Ronin, the follow-up that took only five years fewer than Chinese Democracy to arrive? First, a note about that title: Besides the usual mystical imagination of two guys prone to titling songs “Battle for Asgard,” a r?nin is a samurai with no masters. Sounds about right; these two have nothing to lose and loads to prove. And by eerie coincidence, it’s a good time to do so, in a post-Run the Jewels 2 world where Gangsta Boo can hang with a Def Jukie or U-God himself can appear here after The Cold Vein garnered countless Wu-Tang comparisons.

But let’s not get too swept up in an underdog story. Ronin is a very good album and a fun anachronism in 2015 between surprise Drake and Kanye releases. New producer BILL COSMIQ’s beats run along the lines of “contemplative orchestral fanfare,” with washes of psychedelia and Shaolin-style codespeak  in other words it’s the Wu throwback album that most rap fans wanted the underrated A Better Tomorrow to be.

Aire still has an instantly recognizable delivery unlike almost anyone else — Freeway meets uh, Lyrics Born maybe? — and still crafts deliriously beautiful rhyme origami punctuated by non-sequiturs like “A stray bullet’s such an unwanted gift” (“Opposite of Desolate”) or “I’m waiting for Pinnochio to spite his face” (“The Fire Rises”). His boasts can be fantastically bizarre (“I’m the spy who loved your daughter / But on this night I’m the sergeant of slaughter”), and on “Psalm 82″ he utters the most menacing “Olly olly oxen free!” of all time. Sometimes he falls flat (“Hey, ain’t you that dude who got caught touching Pikachu?”), but overall the new Ox benefits well from the changed landscape; with production shorn of El-P’s weirdness ten years ago, tracks like “Blade (The Art of Ox)” or the Doom-assisted “Iron Rose” would’ve registered as high-grade Jedi Mind Tricks. Now they’re sweeping vestiges of a lost art, avant-rap with something to chew on and no easy angle connecting lines like “Mama’s eyes well up like lemon pies” and “Dollars and dreams corrupt but knowledge is king” within the same song (“The Vision”).

Stream-of-consciousness rap cycled back into favor a couple years ago with Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris and (of all things) Mac Miller’s Watching Movies With the Sound Off, before being subsumed again by the next wave of Auto-Tune and so-called cloud rap. Blade isn’t quite that esoteric or ambitious, just an adept, hour-long reminder of how 14 years ago these guys turned your average boom bap into elaborate fantasies of iron galaxies and screamed phoenixes.