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Cannibal Ox
Blade Of The Ronin Mike Diver , March 20th, 2015 12:08

Cannibal Ox's 2001 debut album The Cold Vein was New York hip hop given the bumps by a clutch of skin-peeled T-800s, shaken by ice-core electrics and keys clawed from the crust of Ganymede. It was supremely slick but spooked, too, like EPMD gone goth on a Coney Island ghost train, or Wu-Tang's paranoid prose filtered through future-facing mythology as well as razor-edged expressions of domestic difficulties. Naturally, the album barely brushed the mainstream, only accumulating respectable sales over a period of several years.

Blade Of The Ronin, potentially named as a nod to the duo's public falling out with El-P, is album two from the Harlem pair of Vast Aire and Vordol Mega, aka Theodore Arrington III and Shamar Gardner, and it arrives after too many "when will they?" questions to reasonably count. While the pair never officially disbanded, both kept active with not-so-side projects and a succession of solo LPs, distancing themselves from this collaborative calling. Asked in 2007 if there'd be a second Can Ox set in the future, El-P had to doubt it. A sequel to The Cold Vein was announced a couple of times in the mid-00s, only to be scrapped. Time was bided. Rumours blew in the breeze. A Kickstarter stalled and failed. Promise awaited fulfillment like lips seconds away from a first kiss.

But despite the considerable years between album releases, this 19-track, hour-long collection, ultimately picked up by iHipHop Distribution after the aforementioned crowd-funding campaign fell substantially short, is perfectly timed. Had it come out in 2006, when a second set was initially scheduled for, it'd have faced inevitable criticism for not matching the power of its predecessor, much like Nas' It Was Written of 1996 has only ever existed in the shadow of its two-years-previous predecessor, in spite of its singular strengths. If Blade Of The Ronin waited any longer, anticipation may have struck an irretrievable low, such would be the space separating the two Can Ox LPs. Now feels right. Now feels ready. And Vast and Vordol have, for the most part, returned with their A-game intact.

They're guilty of treading water on occasions, filling bars for the sake of it rather than with messages of meaning. The "iron" repetition of 'Iron Rose' feels forced to fit a concept that could have been dropped for better-balanced cadence, and Aire's shown up by the guesting MF DOOM swinging in with some characteristically offbeat imagery: "Who gives a flying turd or iron dung?" Elsewhere, though, he's a ringmaster of utmost confidence and gives precisely zero fucks about playing a second-string role in the company of featuring artists of arguably greater profile. So when Wu-Tang's U-God pops up on the Black Milk-produced 'Blade: The Art Of Ox', the sole cut not crafted by the relatively unknown Bill Cosmiq (his phone might well be ringing more regularly after this, mind) there's only one rapper working the centre stage.

Of course this album is engineered to showcase the interplay between Aire and Mega – though if you had to call it, the former edges proceedings for the most impactful rhymes – but plenty of credit must go to Cosmiq for delivering a mix that complements what we know of Can Ox's past while stopping short of shamelessly shadowing the efforts of El-P. It's not exactly pushing these MCs towards a new rap revolution, tapping the past and present but skipping predicting tomorrow, but it's consistently engaging without overpowering the stars of the show. Who are menacing and magnificent on the Wu-like 'Psalm 82' – if A Better Tomorrow left you rifling through your wax for the Clan's former glories, check this out – while 'Thunder In July' quotes the Joker over a melancholic lurching beat that bends its knees in time to the traffic hum of the Henry Hudson Bridge.

'Carnivorous' exhibits hunger even after all these years, haunted booms bapping beneath more of those blades-barely-sheathed vocals that Aire and Mega nailed as a trademark back in 2001. 'The Fire Rises' is a more celebratory proclamation of this group's place in hip-hop history, outsiders who know their voices have been heard by kids who've come through in their unified absence – the Earl Sweatshirts of this world, younger talents whose own conscious-streaming flows betray traits traceable to The Cold Vein. 'Gotham' is a hometown high-five unlike many you'll hear shouting out the streets of the Big Apple, simultaneously claustrophobic and cosmic, like Shape of Broad Minds grounded by a library fine.

Sometimes precisely what Aire's on about gets lost in translation – there are too many contrasting metaphors at play on 'Water' for it to truly achieve purchase on attentions in isolation, for instance. But when these relative weak spots are taken as part of the whole, they benefit from the context. No single track drags its heels, the longest number stopping shy of five minutes, so there's never time enough to wonder when the next winner's being cued – it's already in your ears.

If you loved The Cold Vein, you need this in your life too. Rap has caught up with Can Ox to the extent where their material doesn't appear wholly otherworldly in 2015, but even when operating on a terrestrial plane, this pair cuts an uncommonly intoxicating thread through everyday travails and expanded-mind expressionism alike.