[I]”New York is evil at its core”[/I] ‘Iron Galaxy’.
Here’s the flipside to NYC-cool. On their debut album, Brooklynite MCs Vordul and Vast Aire Kramer paint a nightmarish vision of the Big Apple, underclass style, where people live no better than pigeons, the prey of swarming rats and vultures. The gritty urban-realism that has long been a cornerstone of hip-hop has rarely been rendered so vividly. While Mobb Deep’s unrelenting grimness ultimately blunted their impact, and Wu Tang swiftly descended into kung fu kitsch, Cannibal Ox display a fresh, complex genius.
They’ll spin off into abstract realms of wordplay, and then pull back to stark documentary style, like when Vordul spits [I]”Little. Black. Girl. Got. Shot”[/I], as jarring explosions of silence punctuate every other word (‘Iron Galaxy’), a newspaper headline made flesh. The mixture of poetry and reportage conjures up a hyper-real vision of New York as part Dickensian tragedy, part Gothic-horror, part news bulletin. Spliced to stoned, smoggy tracks built by Company Flow’s El-P, all rubberised stutter-funk and sweeps of melancholic [I]Blade Runner[/I]-esque synths, the result is sublime.
Cannibal Ox aren’t gangstas or gunslingers, they’re civilians. There’s no machismo to deaden the lyrical impact; their encounter with local thugs, selling crack to kids and waving Glocks in their faces (‘Vein’) is chilling, not least for the impotence of their resulting anger, the humiliation of their powerlessness. And ‘The F-Word’ is an even more startling inversion of the typical Cro-Magnon rap love song than Mos Def’s ‘Ms Fat Booty’. But while these rhymes seem fuelled by disgust and righteous morality, Ox never swap poetics for polemicism; their art never suffers for their honesty.
The album only gets darker as it progresses, until the last two tracks. ‘Pigeon’ is the culmination of the running underclass-as-pigeon metaphor, Vordul proclaiming himself [I]”Metallic-winged”[/I], like some Manga-fantasy, whose words can [I]”Break bones”[/I]; he’s not going to be flying in circles above trashcans [I]”eating pizza crusts”[/I] any longer. The final, untitled track sees the pigeon rise again as Phoenix, to avenge [I]”God locked in a cell/Jesus on a crucifix”[/I]. This is the image Cannibal Ox close the album with, a rare glimmer of hope symbolising their own flight from Hell. Carving one of the most potent, profound albums of the year, Cannibal Ox’s reality-drenched psychedelia renders most of the empty, cliché-ridden braggadocio of hip-hop today totally obsolete. A ‘What’s Going On?’ for the hip-hop age, its pathos and poetry will scar you for life.