(Today's Reader Review is another double-shot of Gut Reactions, as both Theo Mac and Keeshawn voice their thoughts on Vast Aire's latest, Ox 2010: A Street Odyssey. Although you would think that I would just try to get contributors to work together at this point in the blog's life, this write-up is, once again, actually two separate submissions I received at the same time, edited into one semi-coherent discussion. Let me know what you think, and be sure to give Theo Mac and Keeshawn some notes.)
Theo Mac: Almost exactly ten years ago, when Asperger syndrome sufferer Theodore “Vast Aire” Arrington paired up with mumbling fellow New York rapper/pal Vordul Megallah to form the duo Cannibal Ox and, with assistance behind the boards by acclaimed underground rapper/producer El-P, released their debut The Cold Vein, he probably knew exactly how good it was. He probably knew that “The F-Word” was one of the greatest hip hop love songs ever written, that ,“If there’s crack in the basement / crackheads stand adjacent” really was quite a good couplet to introduce himself with, and he probably knew what he did to El-P’s beats on “Stress Rap” and “Real Earth” would normally result in a long-term prison sentence in many Western countries (and yet not be too highly frowned upon in the Middle East). You wouldn’t be alone in declaring The Cold Vein the best hip-hop album of the last decade, and if you were to go a step further and place it amongst the greatest of all time, you would undoubtedly find yourself in less company, but not be entirely lonely. Vast Aire would be with you, in all likelihood. He and Vordul worked so unbelievably well together, the court jester and the earnest subject, appealing to a king (El-P, I guess?) whose apocalyptic kingdom is frighteningly shaken by mutant elephant stampedes and sporadic laser gunshots. So, assuming Theodore knew and believed all of this, and that he enjoyed the beautifully chaotic and disturbed kingdom of Cannibal Ox, why the fuck did he choose to pursue a solo career?
I posed that question as an outlet for my frustration, regarding the trio’s inability to release a sequel to their phenomenal debut album. Maybe I shouldn’t be so concerned: a sophomore effort might have actually detracted from the original's potency. Either way, I don’t intend to explore Can Ox’s squabbles in particular detail. I could ask Vast Aire, but, frankly, I’m afraid of his Internet persona. The short version of the story is that Vordul Mega got depressed, and then Vast and El-P had a falling-out (a quick Internet search would give you invaluable insight into the mind of Vast Aire, which could go some way to explaining the group's supposed “creative differences”). If anybody comments on this review, God forbid, in an incoherent stream of anger, threats, and abuse, caps locked punched down, it’s likely to be Vast Aire. Basically, he’s an extremely volatile character, who needs to take a second to reflect and inhale a long blunt-free breath. and grow up (see: his beef with Cage). But all geniuses are somewhat crazy, right? All things considered, Ernest Hemingway thought the FBI were trying to kill him, Vladimir Lenin holidayed in Siberia of all places, and John Lennon once called himself a walrus. Maybe we should make allowances for a man capable of blessing a microphone seventy times in one second, a man who addresses his Christmas list to God rather than Santa. Shouldn’t we?
Look Mom…No Hands came in 2004 as his first solo shot, and it was alright. Four years later, Deuces Wild was a surprise, and to this day remains underrated, although fans of The Cold Vein were set to be disappointed. True, there was a collaboration with Vordul Mega included, but even having rap legend Pete Rock on the beat was anticlimactic when compared to the mighty El-P: the sound was a definite departure, like it or not. Now comes along Ox 2010: A Street Odyssey, in the year 2011 (deal with it), and with the assistance of a giant hint in the album title, Vast Aire attempts to return to Cannibal Ox’s sulfur dioxide-thundercloud, bare-light-bulb roots.
That at least sounds exciting, but is the album any good? Do any of the imitation beats do justice to the impeccable originals? Has Vast Aire become refined and wise in old age, or have the toxic fumes and baseball bat blunts made him much stupider? What about the metaphors, the obscure TV references, the audacious boasts: do they still work? Is it like a Cannibal Ox album? Wait around and you’ll see.
Keeshawn: It seems like ages since we were all blessed with the undeniable classic that is Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein. That’s mainly because, well, it has been: it’s been an entire decade since Cannibal Ox’s debut (and, to date, only) album was released. (Feel old yet?) I mention The Cold Vein because it is impossible to talk about Vast Aire’s back catalog without mentioning said album. Since that album came out, everything the man has touched has been compared to who he was when he was partnered with Vordul Mega. He’s been cursed with dropping a classic album as his debut, and has tried to live up to the hype since then.
It’s not as though the man has put out garbage albums since The Cold Vein, though. His previous albums, Look Mom… No Hands and Deuces Wild, were well-received by many hip hop heads. The man hasn’t fallen off, but he hasn’t exactly cemented himself onto the list of top rappers of all time, either.
Fast forward to today, when Vast Aire brings us what he calls Ox 2010: A Street Odyssey. As ridiculous as the album cover is, it truly does describe the feel of this album, as he goes for the spacey vibe of a Cannibal Ox album, which I guess is exactly what a regular Cannibal Ox album would sound like. Speaking of Cannibal Ox, he uses the duo's legendary name as a part of his album title to remind listeners that he was once responsible for dropping a classic album.
Anyway, shall we?
1. INTRO: OX 2010
T: Vast ensures that his introduction enforces the overarching, extraterrestrial, outer space theme of his third solo album, but no one would ever want to listen to this more than once. The computer voice interaction simply sounds silly in his thick New York accent.
K: The weird thing about this track is that Vast Aire is arguing with a rebellious robot. The funny thing about it is that I found this intro to be hilarious. I find myself quoting bits of this often. You’ll enjoy it if you don’t take it too seriously.
T: Vast drawls over a futuristic soundscape, managing to sound both hungry and unenthusiastic. Although the beat, reminiscent of The Cold Vein, isn't on par with, say, “Ox Out The Cage”, it’s still hard, and fans of Vast Aire’s poetic, lackadaisical flow shouldn’t hold too many grudges. He is quick to establish why many (including me) find his work so entertaining, by saying, “I rhyme outside the mold”, before philosophically declaring, “The idea is the infinite road / this means my thoughts have no abode”, which sounds fantastic. The hook will become less shitty over time as well, I promise.
K: After that unique intro, we’re hit with the first song on the album, and it’s a monster. The beat hits you hard, and Vast wastes no time getting into it. No bouncy beat, no poppy hook, no shitty lyrics, just straight, raw hip hop. As usual, the man spits a ridiculous amount of quotable lines, and makes sure to suck you in to this album by throwing a haymaker on the first punch. This is a great way to start off the album.
3. ALMIGHTY JOSE (FEAT. KARNIEGE)
T: The beat isn’t particularly interesting, but it compliments Vast’s hook well, which is a clever dismissal of empty threats. Unfortunately, the guest rapper’s opening two bars will be amongst the worst you’ve ever heard. Vast then takes over, and essentially says nothing of any coherence. I’m inclined to forgive our host here, seeing that he’s one of my favourites, but I'm warning you now: this will probably become a frustrating theme throughout for any first-time listeners.
K: Those keys! I’m a sucker for beats that incorporate piano keys. We hear the first guest appearance on the album, and to be honest, I feel like his sole purpose on the song was to get completely outshined by Vast.
4. THE MAN OF STEEL
T: An engaging beat, put in the hands of a mind like an XBOX 720 connected with a Playstation 4 makes for a good combination. This is still nothing to get overly excited about, though.
K: Those horns! I’m a sucker for beats that incorporate horns. The production so far on these past three tracks have been top-notch. Vast Aire makes the most of it by absolutely demolishing the beat with his hilarious, yet clever lyrics. Three songs into the album, and Vast Aire is apparently on a mission to prove that he still has it in him.
5. I DON’T CARE (FEAT. CAPPADONNA)
T: Here, we get picked up by our favourite gypsy cab driver, who doesn’t drop the listener off in the middle of fire, but, rather, drives appallingly, swerving in different lanes, running red lights and not slowing down for schoolchildren crossing the road. However, Cappa’s disregard for traffic regulations and pedestrian safety does not detract from Kount Fif’s fourth successive and successful beat, which feels like an improvised game of soccer on a sun-soaked Brazilian beach. Vast Aire’s first and third verses are much more (but still not entirely) focussed, sticking to the familiar topic of New York life. He gets a bit clever towards the end as well, "Real Earth" style, declaring himself to be “big / on the piano at FAO Schwartz”.
K: Wow. I thought the horns on the last song were impressive, but the ones that factor on here hit you even harder. Vast is still on his shit by delivering those lyrics. It’s been a while since I’ve heard verses as quotable as this man’s. Cappadonna does his part by delivering a verse that is just as energetic as the beat. Speaking of Cappa, the man’s been on a pretty nice streak lately. This Wu/Ox collaboration was an extremely entertaining listen.
6. 2090 (SO GRIMEY) (FEAT. DOUBLE A.B.)
T: Things go a bit wrong. All good hip-hop fans should be forgiving towards their chosen genre’s hooks, after all that’s not what we really care about, but under no circumstances should they ever have to be reminded of the fucking Black Eyed Peas. The beat is an emphatic, more commercial The Cold Vein experience, but it’s quite boring. This is the first major misjudgment from Vast Aire.
K: Well, it couldn’t last forever. It’s not that this song has a bad beat or terrible lyrics: in fact, the beat is pretty entertaining, and the lyrics from both Vast and Double A.B. are incredibly well written. But the hook hurts the song a lot. Other than that, though, it’s a good track.
T: Kount Fif’s departure from the last two tracks is disappointing, especially when it is Harry Fraud that has filled in for him, a producer whose two contributions have been like pink spaceships aimed at an outer galaxy, failing to even take off. Vast’s hook, lifted from his impressive first verse on the impressive first track of his impressive last album, actually works. However, the newly recorded material (i.e., his verses) sounds uninspired by Fraud’s instrumental: basically, he knows it’s total shit. I hope for both of their sakes that there was no awkward eye contact in the booth.
K: Terrible hook number two. This is the first skipabble track on Ox 2010: A Street Odyssey so far. Pretty bland beat, and Vast sounds like he’s affected by it in a most terrible way.
T: I’ll happily concede the beat on here sounds unbelievably cheesy, but Vast’s evident excitement and animated performance actually salvages the song. One of the more focused efforts on the album, although he still trails off at will: “Everybody with an asshole thinks they can rap now” is a good and valid point, but one that’s entirely irrelevant to Vast’s romantic endeavours. This isn’t a song for everyone, and definitely not for the purists, but Vast Aire really exemplifies what many like about him on here: “Maybe she’s perfect / that’s what it seems / maybe she’s born with it / maybe it’s Maybelline!” It’s impossible to dislike his playfulness and whimsical consumerist references, and the man sounds inspired enough here to have the listener rooting for his conquest, even if they might not want to actually imagine him fucking.
K: This song is pretty difficult to review, as the beat sounds like something taken straight from the soundtrack for the original Sonic the Hedgehog, but Vast doesn’t give a fuck, proceeding to tear shit up anyway. He starts off by spitting some raw lyrics, but soon switches to rapping some pretty sweet lyrics about a significant other, with some humorous punch lines thrown in for fun. Yes, that description sounds incredibly cheesy, but it’s something you have to hear instead of just simply read about. This song is something I kept going back to many times, oddly enough. If that isn’t enough, there’s scratches of moaning from a woman that has most likely been sampled from porn. Sounds dirty on paper, but when heard in the song, it actually sounds natural and pure. A pretty weird way to get the album back on track, but it is what it is.
9. THE CANNON OF SAMUS (FEAT. KENYATTAH BLACK)
T: Listening to this beat feels like being dragged through a pitch-black forest by Darth Vader, who then dumps you headfirst in a damp pile of leaves and sexually assaults you. I still need to work out if I enjoy the stiff robotic penis, but until then, it's fair to just say that the beat is grimy. So, at least Vast has now delivered on a previously unfulfilled promise. The guest rapper is interesting as well: Hitler is sometimes tastelessly referenced in hip-hop, but we definitely don't hear enough about Mussolini.
K: If that last song was too sappy for you, then this song will get you back on course. This is some pretty dark, gritty, atmospheric stuff, and I fucking love it. I’ve never heard of Kenyattah Black, but the guy makes a pretty great first impression. I’d be interested in hearing more of his stuff. Vast doesn’t disappoint either, but was beat out by his guest. Overall, though, this shit is bonkers.
10. DARK MATTER (FEAT. SPACE)
T: The Raekwon “Rainy Dayz” sample works nicely with the hook, and Vast's detached flow sounds quite good over the spacey beat. Of course if this was a Cannibal Ox track, it would be considered weak, but this far into the album, it is time to appreciate and respect that this is Vast Aire, the solo package. This was a decent track.
K: This song is in no way bad, but something was missing. Maybe it’s the beat, maybe it’s the song‘s topic, or maybe it’s the wordy hook, but it felt incomplete. The Raekwon sample was some pretty nice foreshadowing, though.
11. MERRY GO ROUND
T: Unfortunately, there's a bit too much going on with the beat, even if Vast Aire sounds good and, for once, there's a recognisable direction in the track. It's also too long, and the hook is not good enough to warrant such hefty repetition.
K: It may seem that the album was going to go in a downward direction again, but then we’re hit with this song. Vast absolutely diminishes this ridiculous beat. Everything about this song is an absolute yes in my book. You’ll find yourself going back to this song numerous times. This shit is good.
12. THOR'S HAMMER (FEAT. RAEKWON & VORDUL MEGA)
T: We should probably establish this now before anybody gets hurt: my favourite hip hop album of all time is Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Next up it's OutKast's Aquemini and ATLiens, and then The Cold Vein. (Liquid Swords, Dah Shinin’ and A Long Hot Summer come after.) So with three of the artists involved in my top five appearing, there was no way I could ever outright dislike this track. Luckily, I didn't: Raekwon growling over the dark beat and ominous vocal sample sounds wonderful, and I like how both his and Vast's verses start identically, giving us the glimmer of hope that the two may have even recorded together in the same studio. Vordul Mega definitely didn't, as he sounds completely disconnected from the song, but when he jumps on third, it still sounds cool. This song was very good. And I refuse to believe that nobody else gulped when the distant vocal sample from “Atom” touchingly faded in and out between verses. There you go, El-P: you’ve made your mark, even if Vast now considers you to be a fake emo thug with a pink t-shirt on.
K: Being an absolute Wu-head, this was the song I was looking forward to the most. I was not disappointed: in fact, it is probably the best song on the album. Everything about this song screams out Wu-Tang to me. The beat, the rhymes, everything. Raekwon absolutely destroys this song with his verse, so much so that not even Vast was able to provide a proper follow-up. To my surprise, though, Vordul Mega walks away with this track. Something about hearing Vordul rap alongside Vast just feels right. By far the most enjoyable song on the album.
13. SPY VS. SPY
T: Quite a good beat, and Vast flows well enough, but by now, you’re either sick of his inability to stick to a singular topic, or you’ve embraced this more-than-ever evident feature of his rhyming as a James Joyce/Ghostface Killah stream-of-consciousness style narrative.
K: Vast refuses to let his fans down by providing what is one of the best one-two-three knockouts on a hip hop album. Once again, the beat sets a great playground for Vast Aire to completely go bonkers on. This part of the album shows Vast at his absolute best.
14. THE VERDICT (FEAT. GUILTY SIMPSON)
T: Guilty Simpson is quite a good rapper, despite his last album, consisting of one hundred and forty-four skits, being a huge letdown. Over this Ayatollah production, he’s actually outshined by Vast Aire, although the beat, which would have fit Roc Marciano like a snug glove, feels too slow for either participant. This collaboration was still relatively enjoyable, though.
K: After the last three songs, this song seems a bit underwhelming. The beat seems sub-par compared to the last three, but when you finish hearing the song, and realize how skillfully Guilty and Vast rip this song apart, you’ll look past that. These last four songs do a great job of setting you up for what is the final song on the album.
15. BATTLE OF THE PLANETS (FEAT. GENESIS OF LXG)
T: Over a truly majestic production that I’m sure El-P would be proud to put his name to, Vast Aire chooses to dis fellow former Def Jux rapper Cage. The beef was fresh at the time this track was recorded, but two years later, you have to question why a shit is still given. As evident from his YouTube, MySpace and Facebook comments (perils of modern technology and all that), we are not dealing with a particularly rational human being (my favourite is Vast telling a fan to “GET THE FUCK OFF MY PAGE U FAKE FAN” for mentioning he enjoys El-P’s work as well as Vast’s). Furthermore, it is Cage who is being attacked, which is a bit like Jeru the Damaja taking on The Fugees all over again. Vast’s first verse is disappointing, but then his pal Genesis takes over, rhyming “bust they ass” with “mustard gas” and generally just sounding quite good. Things pick up in Vast’s last verse, as he finally wakes up and actually becomes funny: the line, “He doesn’t even know his own gender / he’s usually the one on the bottom, playing pretender”, was particularly amusing. The “Scream Phoenix” homage in the instrumental, chorus and actual album placement of the track was moving, pointing us even more towards the fact that Vast is reflecting on his Cannibal Ox days, but it is a shame that the lyrical energy of these two was wasted on addressing stale and petty beef, rather than an elevated bird metaphor or something. With some refinement and self-awareness, this could have been a wonderful song. Having said that, since this originally came out in 2009, it’s seen multiple plays on my iPod, because the beat is just phenomenal, and two of the three verses, albeit pointless, manage to be entertaining. So it must be half-good.
K: This was the absolute perfect way of ending the album. The beat has a triumphant feel to it. It feels as if Vast used this song to let out any remaining lyrics worth mentioning. This song is everywhere in terms of having a subject: going from him stating how minimal you are compared to him, to bragging about how badass he is, to even throwing out a few disses at his old label owner, Cage. And the song is all the better for it. His guest does a great job of keeping up with Vast, and provides some memorable lines of his own. We even get an old nostalgic feeling with Vast screaming out “Scream Phoenix”, reminding us of his Cold Vein days. There is absolutely no way this album could’ve possible ended on a higher note. This is a fucking win.
THE LAST WORD:
T: And that’s it. Vast Aire revisits The Cold Vein with Ox 2010: A Street Odyssey, and has some degree of success. Whilst few songs are very exciting, few are below par; however, anybody expecting another “A B-Boy’s Alpha” or “Scream Phoenix” is frankly deluded. Vast has a good ear for beats, which are generally not the problem here: instead, he is. Rarely straying from the familiar territory of “this is why I’m hot, this is why you’re not, your girl is my girl, etc.”, he no longer has that appealing sense of quirkiness and peculiarity to his work: it is all very predictable. However, much to Vast Aire’s credit, he sounds just as hungry and determined as he did ten years ago, and on the occasions when he doesn’t, it would probably be reasonable and fair to blame the narcotics. I'm not wishing to patronise: this enthusiasm is admirable for somebody whose career is unlikely to have turned out as they planned, and the energy is impressive, especially when much of it must have been used up scouring the Internet for criticism, and responding to every negative comment, message and tweet in angry capital letters. Ox 2010: A Street Odyssey, although lacking focus and direction at times, is all the better for the evident passion Vast Aire has for hip hop. True fans like myself are still able to appreciate the generic areas Vast persistently addresses, as long as he is attacking them with his inimitable flow and trademark sense of humour, which is done here. Even if you don’t, the album still contains enough flashes of brilliance and a high enough calibre of beats to warrant a purchase. I liked it, anyhow.
K: With Ox 2010: A Streey Odyssey, Vast Aire pulled an entertaining-as-hell album out of his ass. I see myself listening to this consistently. As of now, this is the best album I’ve heard thus far in 2011. Heck, this is probably Vast Aire’s best offering since The Cold Vein. Everything from the beats, the verses, the guest appearances, the flow, and overall vibe of the album is great. Even the less interesting songs on this album still sound good enough to flow with the rest of the project. If Vast Aire doesn’t make it onto some sort of top album list at the end of the year, I’ll be surprised. The sad thing is, it seems that nobody actually knows about this album. Do yourself a favor, and look this one up. It’s different, fun, thought provoking, and funny. This is an absolute yes in my book. Vast Aire did it.
-Theo Mac & Keeshawn
(Questions? Comments? Concerns with the awkward formatting? Leave your thoughts below.)