The Cold Vein
Definitive Jux, 2001
It can be said that The Cold Vein stands as one of the centerpieces for the introduction to independent hip-hop. Like other underground classics such as Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus and Madvillainy by Madvillain, The Cold Vein is a cultural landmark. Here, Cannibal Ox sports a startling record that paints and reflects the bleakness of life and actuality in New York City over bruising production by mastermind El-P. Vast Aire and Vordul Mega’s lines are dark, poignant and witty, and in the most creative ways they formulate stories of harsh realities mixed with cunning science fiction and street poetry. Vast Aire slings bars that are slow progressives, and they sting and bite the hardest when his poetic punchlines come through the headphones. Comparatively, Vordul harnesses the microphone by displaying a keen sense of demanding beauty and off-kilter rhyme schemes. Under the content is El-P’s production, which is rich with multiple layers of sound and futuristic tinges. His production remains downtrodden, yet expansive, to accompany Vast and Vordul’s stories, and with all of this you get The Cold Vein, an inventive masterpiece.
The Cold Vein runs off of hip-hop’s traditional concerns, but displays this through a completely different lens. “Pigeon” is an example of this, as Vast and Vordul use birds and machinery as a center theme to explore New York’s street corners. Vast opens the track by comparing birds to corner kids: “Birds of the same feather flock together/ Congested on a majestic street corner/ That’s a short time goal for most of ’em/ Cuz most of ’em would rather expand their wings and hover over greater things/ That’s what we call inspired flight/ By the pigeons that gotta eat pizza crust every night.” It isn’t on every record where you hear an MC telling stories of the urban lower class through bird metaphors. Later on in the song, Vordul goes off on city violence and how it’s affecting the youth by way of rapping as if he’s a gun: “Eskimo medal doctrine locked in oxygen shell/ Words shot plated metal lung which spun kids’ carrousel/ Mega alarm technoloid these boys fight four arms/ Swinging two toes very well/ Terror toys jubilated mega noise when iron works/ Bullet shot animated mad windows with fireworks/ Shinin’ summer-time hydrants/ Splash passing cars, now run ghetto tyrants.”
On “Iron Galaxy” (another reference to machinery), Vast and Vordul each take their own approach to reflect on New York City as a whole. “NY 5-0 might shoot black head,” Vordul states in his second verse. “Nigga sorry I sold space suit to crack head/ DT’s operate mechanically, po-po in slow-mo/ Black kids locked away/ Add a key, plus one fourth pound of smoke flow.” In this slew of bars, we see The Cold Vein at its finest. Vordul explains the foundations of the city, while making incredibly luscious landscapes: he criticizes cops for being trigger happy when facing the black community, uses science fiction to relate to the junkies he sells drugs to, he compares authorities to robots (“DT’s operate mechanically”) and puts the War on Drugs on stage by refocusing on the fact that blacks are being locked away with the key thrown away for minor drug offenses. At the start of Vast Aire’s verse is perhaps the most important sequence of lyrics The Cold Vein has to offer: “And if there’s crack in a basement/ Crack heads stand adjacent/ Anger displacement/ From food stamp arrangements“. Here we see Vast exploring the needs of the lower class in a capitalistic society. If there’s a need for something, people will line up for it, and by growing up poor and needing governmental help, these citizens are in-turn angry, thus leading to drug addictions which is mentioned in the first line. Moreover, the underlying notion that isn’t even mentioned is that this is a cyclical society, in which everything is related.
Slung all over The Cold Vein are these themes and motifs told through the creative words of Vast and Vordul Mega (plus a few guests). What’s incredible is that this draw is satisfying while at the same time remaining informative. Cannibal Ox live in a slumber and bleak environment on this record, but they use this to their advantage. Along with El-P’s production, which skitters and skates in all directions, The Cold Vein is a novel in disguise. On a contextual level, there may be no other underground hip-hop album that touches on the culture’s core through such a unique approach, but no matter what people think of this record’s little things, it goes without saying that it stands as a creative story on social commentary. The Cold Vein is legendary, and it will always be legendary, not just for its sound and creativeness, but also for what it stands for.
One of my favorite things about hip-hop music is how much space there is for creativity and for each artist to bring something different to the game. This concept can easily be applied to most genres of music. However, with the help of things such as sampling, hip-hop music is able to incorporate aspects of many genres such as jazz, rock, funk and even classical. Considering this, the possibilities are endless for producers looking for something new for an MC to rhyme over or for an instrumental. The Cold Vein by Cannibal Ox, released in 2001, is the type of record that illustrates how collaboration among hip-hop artists lends itself to innovative new sounds.
With the help of production mastermind El-P, Harlem natives Vast Aire and Vordul Mega demonstrate their unique lyrical abilities. On “Out Of The Cage” both MC’s testify as to why they’re the shit.
“You want to pop shit and get popped in the top lip?/ I shoot the five and on a good day I bite bullets/ We use bear traps to catch weasels/ Metal mouth’s diesel and the bite’s lethal/ We in the catacomb, nappy headed never used a comb/ And built with the forces that blew away Dorothy’s home”
Vast and Vordul take a reflective approach as they discuss the highs and lows being in a relationship on “F Word”:
“The more I learn it’s like the Clash of the Titans/ All I wanna do is avoid fightin’/ A little arguing’s okay but not everyday/ And if we can’t communicate what we got decays”
Later on “Ridiculoid,” the emphasis is still on reflection. However, the reflection from each MC (including El-P) deals with the current state of hip-hop music and the mainstream message of commercialism and greed.
“I still remember the days of Coleco/ A daily struggle but I hold onto the vision/ Hip hop at it’s best when it lacked television/ And everybody wasn’t an emcee”
With each track, the skill of Vast and Vordul could not be more apparent as they weave words into stories at a deliberate pace that are heartfelt, perceptive and at times, hard-hitting.
To go along with this, El-P’s production provides the perfect backdrop, setting up something other than a boom-bap sound. The beats move along at an unhurried pace that is refreshing in that it is different. El-P’s brilliance is on full display with production sounding as though it could have been made recently. On “Atom” the sounds of computer-like whirs and whistles cut through, creating something of a futuristic feel, creating the sense that you can see in beyond our time.
In all honesty, The Cold Vein is different and it took me a few spins to get into it but that’s what makes it great. Vast Aire, Vordul Mega and El-P take you to a different place with this record. A place where things move slow, allowing you to take it all in and truly appreciate the sounds and lyrics. To me, this is refreshing as the increase of technology has sped up everything we do. Maybe this record is futuristic in that we’ll realize that as a society, we need to take a deep breath, slow down and allow ourselves to make process the world around us and makes changes for the better.
“The F Word”