I should have seen the warning signs from the jump: duo with one classic album and a decade of rumors and unfruitful false starts on a follow-up reunite for a show with sketchy promotion and no sign of the high-profile cosigns that made them famous in the first place. I would have been more angry about last night’s Cannibal Ox show if it wasn’t so depressing.
Cannibal Ox still put on a good show and their amazing 2001 debut The Cold Vein has aged well. Vast Aire and Vordul Mega’s yin-and-yang dynamic translates well live; Vast is more energetic and engaging while Vordul is more focused. (Vast is also a gigantic dude while Vordul is not.) The crowd, pretty tired after about seven opening acts and three times more rappers who barely identified themselves, came to life immediately. It takes a certain kind of love for an act to make a call-and-response chant ouf of “MY SHELL / MECHANIC FOUND GHOST,” the opening bars of “Iron Galaxy.” They followed with “A B-Boy’s Alpha,” “Straight Off the D.I.C.,” “Vein,” “Rare Earth,” and “Battle for Asgard.” (C-Rayz Walz requested “Stress Rap” before Vast took his mic away.) After that things went quickly downhill; Vast brought out some other dudes and started debuting new material. The room cleared out quickly and I left when everyone was trading bars over Lil Wayne’s “No Worries.”
The sad truth is that without El-P, Vast and Vordul are just good rappers. Vast is still a master of minimalism and Vordul still spits like he’s chanting ancient spells to himself. With El, they made a smart, thoughtful album that may or not be about life as emotional rap superheroes in a lower-class section of a dying space colony. Last night, they were two good rappers on a stage full of good rappers: I was the only one of my four friends that noticed that two of the openers had freestyled an entire song with a good, catchy hook and everything. But in 2012 the underground rap scene is a weird, detached ultraconservative branch of hip-hop where your talent is all that matters and its value is supposedly self-evident. This type of orthodoxy doesn’t really appeal to casual fans and, let’s be honest, its inherent dick-swingingness drives away most women. This shit isn’t cool anymore; I’m a dyed-in-the-wool backpacker who has paid money for C-Rayz Walz records and even I was bored. El-P helped Vast and Vordul transcend the crazy, insular underground rap universe and exposed them to a larger audience.
To make matters worse, this would be the perfect moment for a legitimate Cannibal Ox comeback. El-P’s stock is as high as ever; his unlikely collab with Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music, was one of the albums of the year (rap or otherwise) and it was so good that his own very good Cancer 4 Cure solo album got somewhat outshined. New York rap is in a full-on renaissance, led as much by weirdos like Das Racist as by more traditional dudes like Roc Marciano and Action Bronson. Everyone’s working with everyone, even legitimate pop star French Montana. Vast and Vordul were ahead of their time a decade ago, and for six songs, they had a room full of fans of various ages singing every word. This should be their moment.
And that’s why last night was depressing. El-P, Vast, and Vordul have answered questions about a sophomore album on and off since The Cold Vein dropped and the answers have never been particularly positive. The only news I ever “broke” was in 2007 when I interviewed El and he opined that a second Can Ox album would be an “impossible task.” Some form of Cannibal Ox is working on new music but if last night is any indication, it’s pedestrian rappity rap with little or no resemblance to the space odyssey that was The Cold Vein. The problem is clearly interpersonal (and, frankly, not really my business) but as a fan it’s deflating.
Still, for twenty minutes or so Cannibal Ox recaptured their glory last night. There are no shortage of ambitious, creative producers out there; maybe one of them can get Vast and Vordul back on track.