The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
- Milton, Paradise Lost

Me and [Vordul], we just some stupid ghetto kids. We collect comic books, we know some philosophy... We just enjoy lunch, you know what I mean? We're on some dumb shit like that.
- Vast Aire, in an interview with Gavin Mueller of Stylus magazine: http://www.stylusmagazine.com/artistinterviews/vast_aire_pageone.html

The Cold Vein (Definitive Jux, May 2001) is Cannibal Ox's first and, so far, only album. Its most remarkable characterisic is its sheer range; by turns, and sometimes simultaneously, it's precise and frenzied, despairing and redemptive, hard-bitten and vulnerable, claustrophobic and expansive, apocalyptic and everyday. Def Jux head-honcho and former Company Flow mad scientist El-P produces, and is in rare form, even for El-P. While the beats can stand alone (and do, a vocals-less version of the album also exists, as Cannibal Oxtrumentals), the real standouts are the MCs, Vast Aire Kramer and Vordul Megala.

Vast Aire has deliberate, stacatto flow, a resonant baritone that sounds a bit like Tricky with less mumbling, and a tendency to use wild, visionary metaphor and wordplay to take a simple subject and go shooting off into the sky with it. Vordul is the more grounded of the pair, with a smoother flow and tighter lyrical focus that complements Vast Aire's mystical side nicely.

The lyrics range from Freudian riffs on gangster life ("what you figga/ that chalky outline on the ground is a father figure?"), to Five Percenter jargon, to references to Ghost in the Shell and Miracle on 34th Street, to introducing the recurring theme, which crops up throughout the album, of New York's ghetto residents being like the pigeons that also scratch out a living in the city's interstices. That's just on Track 1, things get a lot crazier after that.

Ironically, The Cold Vein might be easier for people with no real exposure to hip hop at all to get into than fans of the mainstream big names ("The vocals are alright, but the beats make me want to kill myself," said a friend of mine). El-P's style and influences are unorthodox enough that even his fans have questioned his sanity. He takes as much from the dub-inflected British trip-hop sound as American DJs, and is willing to draw on pretty much anybody that uses sound to create a menacing, beautiful landscape, so we can hear traces of Future Sound of London and even Too Dark Park-era Skinny Puppy in his sound.

Track listing (particular standout tracks in bold):

  1. Iron Galaxy - Meet New York City. What's that, you say you already have? That's what you think. Can Ox's New York is a terrible, beautiful nightmare city, and this track is your introduction, starting as a bird's eye-view and then zooming down to street-level. This, appropriately, was the first single off of this album, first seeing light on the 2000 compilation Def Jux Presents...
  2. Ox Out The Cage
  3. Atom (with Alaska and Cryptic of Atoms Family)
  4. A B-Boys Alpha
  5. Raspberry Fields
  6. Straight Off The D.I.C. - Aimless, nervous energy-fueled urban anomie, stoned but still pacing like a caged animal. The vocals are, with a few exceptions, not outstanding, but this is one of the best examples of El-P's skills at creating the kind of soundscapes you can wander around for days lost in.
  7. Vein
  8. The F-Word - A song about falling in unrequited love with a platonic friend. Pretty much a standard topic, if you're fuckin' Jets to Brazil or something, but this has to be breaking new ground on a rap album. Some of the cleverest lines on the album are on this track ("Cupid had me runnin' circles/ blindfolded in the daytime with a flashlight").
  9. Stress Rap
  10. Battle for Asgard (with L.I.F.E. Long and C-Rayz Walz of Stronghold)
  11. Real Earth
  12. Ridiculoid (with El-P) - El-P guest-MCs the first verse of this track ("You know this was supposed to be for my album? That's ok."), in full prophet-of-doom flipout mode. Simultaneously a comic book dystopian fantasy, an attack on cookie-cutter mainstream rappers, and a gauntlet thrown down at the entire universe.
  13. Painkillers
  14. Pigeon
  15. Scream Phoenix - The redemptive coda to the album is, appropriately, a hidden track. Nothing so clear-cut and comforting as a happy ending is promised, but the cryptic mixture of gnostic and Five Percenter imagery promises some kind of final transformation ("we pigeons became phoenix with open minds") that will make all the suffering worth it.

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