Cannibal Ox: "Gotham (Ox City)"
By Brent Ables | 24 April 2013
“Gotham” is something of an event. My Bloody Valentine might have had an extra decade and a great deal more exposure on their side, but for a certain niche of hip-hop fans, The Cold Vein (2001) is a landmark every bit as momentous—and daunting—as Loveless (1990). It was the kind of record released in such circumstances that it was all but guaranteed to be unreplicable: two singular young MCs at the absolute top of their game teamed with one of independent rap’s greatest producers inaugurating the launch of El-P’s Def Jux label. It was an articulate, bold statement of purpose for hip-hop in the midst of Def Jam’s shiny suit era, one whose intelligence and overall craftsmanship has rarely been equaled in independent rap since. That it happened to feature some of the most astonishing beats ever laid to tape was only one reason among many that its creators have been understandably trepidatious to release a proper follow up.
With “Gotham (Ox City),” at last, Can Ox have started to move in that direction. And the results, somewhat shockingly, are very, very good. El-P no longer produces for the duo, but Bill Cosmiq’s beat plays as if beamed in from the same distant constellation, all mechanized drums, retro-futuristic synth chords, and clarion octave jumps sounding sirens. The beat sounds like a natural place for Can Ox to renew their charge, and Vast and Vordul bring the momentum. They also, of course, bring the cheesy jokes: no one familiar with the juvenile humor that leavened The Cold Vein here and there is going to be too surprised to hear an effects-laden Vast Aire tell us that we “are now tuned in to the adventures of Assman and Goblin.” Nor will they be surprised that the cheese is just a setup for the cutting knife.
Vordul Mega cuts first. He may be a little less sharp than he was a decade ago, but if the rumors are at all true (we’ve heard talk of a depressed Vordul sleeping on the streets, scrounging for food) then it’s something of a miracle he sounds as good as he does. His style has always felt like someone perpetually on the brink of tripping, catching his step as he catches his breath. It’s disarming in the best way. But it’s Vast who really makes the strong impression here. His trademark charm and wit are on full display, but he also brings to “Gotham” a darker growl that speaks of hard experience and earned authority. That he feels the need to drop Cold Vein signifiers here and there is understandable, given the context, but it feels less like he’s trying to recapture that record’s fire than lighting a fresh one as a torch to navigate a new decade’s version of “the city sublime.” That city, Vast Aire tells us on this track, belongs to Can Ox; who would I be to argue?