The Pitfalls of the Hip-Hop Duo or Backpacks, Wristbands, and Derby Caps: Cannibal Ox
The problem with hip-hop duos is that they're inherently designed to implode from the get-go. While John Lennon and Paul McCartney and other rock groups with multiple singers might've been able to ease group tension by allowing individuals to shine on their own tracks, hip-hop duos are rarely afforded the same luxury. The reason is simple: any great hip-hop duo inevitably relies on its unique back-and forth chemistry, where both rappers trade-off verses, often within the same 16-bar stanza. Duos thrive on a fluid and melodic interplay, one that simultaneously allows for each rapper to make up for the other's shortcomings. And yet, this set-up is damned from its inception, as it would seemingly contradict the definition of an artist as an individual who desires the room to take creative liberties, experiment, and follow a creative path. A creative path that more often than not is not the same one that one's partner is traveling on.
As in 5 Million Sold, Just For Having The Name Outkast on the Packaging
An analysis of hip hop history reveals the difficulties inherent in staying creatively satisfied within the stifling confines of a partnership. Most famously, Outkast has struggled to stay on the same page artistically, as in recent years they have basically embarked on solo careers, while keeping the name Outkast to enhance their commercial viability. But it isn't only Outkast who have struggled with being a two-man show. Duos have a knack for disappearing off the face of the earth. Think about stellar underground groups like Camp Lo, M.O.P. and Black Sheep. For every Tribe Called Quest or EPMD that manages to survive and put out album after album, there seems to dozens of groups that couldn't stay together past album one (I'm looking at you Company Flow, Blackstar and Tha Dogg Pound (because 10 years later doesn't count))
The tension built into these arrangements often leads to a break-up well before the duo has hit their creative stride. Indeed hip-hop history is littered with individual members of groups trying to go solo and failing miserably. Every now and then a Pharoahe Monche will emerge from the confines of an Organized Konfusion, but more often than not, rappers trying to go solo end up like Q-Tip and Phife: lost and no longer commercially viable without the strength of the group's brand name.
Are You There Phife? It's me, Q-Tip.The problem is that in each duo, one rapper usually emerges as the dominant creative force, sucking up all the critical acclaim and fan worship. Think Andre, Q-Tip, Pharoahe, Phonte of Little Brother, Black Thought (in the Malik B two-rapper days). This inevitably leads to the "alpha" rapper believing himself to be constrained by the group context, and the "lesser" rapper growing jealous and believing himself to be woefully underrated, something which only a solo career could remedy.
Which brings me to Cannibal Ox, the latest hip-hop duo to realize the hoary old cliche: together we stand, divided we fall. In 2001, Can Ox dropped The Cold Vein, the first full-length album from then brand-new label, Def Jux. Like few albums made before or since, The Cold Vein features El-P's trademark robotic, dystopian, Blade Runner beats coupled with the formidable rapping and lyrical skill of Vast Aire and Vordul Megilah. In my opinion, the Cold Vein is the best album by a rap duo in the decade thus far . It's main competitors, being Little Brother's The Listening and Outkast's Stankonia, both outstanding efforts, but ones plagued with filler. And don't even think about mentioning anything from The Clipse, because anyone who thinks The Clipse is the best hip-hop duo in the world is at best naive and at worst disturbingly ignorant.
But The Cold Vein is a masterpiece from start to finish. With a dark, foreboding and yet introspective air seeping through the album's beats and lyrics, The Cold Vein's paranoid mess of imagery and simile captured the state of the damaged American psyche in the year 2001. But that was five years ago and Cannibal Ox haven't been heard from since. Rumors floated about a possible break-up and indeed, Cannibal Ox had planned to do some Western tour dates in 2004, before mysteriously canceling their tour at the last minute. In the meantime, both Vordul and Vast Aire released non-Def Jux solo albums, neither of which received much acclaim nor sales. Suddenly, without solo careers to speak of, I imagine that both Vordul and Vast Aire started looking back on their Cannibal Ox days fondly.
Whatever. He Like Totally Started It.So in 2006, we get the return of Cannibal Ox. Finally. With a live album supposedly in the works and a talk of a new album, Cannibal Ox launched a mini-tour to help re-brand themselves in a world of hip-hop that looks very different than the one they left.
Judging from the state of the half-filled Troubadour, the buzz that had accompanied The Cold Vein has by now dissipated. In fact, I was shocked by how empty the space was, considering the fact that Cannibal Ox hasn't played Los Angeles since touring following the The Cold Vein's release (seriously Los Angeles hip-hop fans, sometimes you really embarass me). Perhaps it was the fact that it cost $28 (with Ticketmaster monopoly charges) or perhaps it was the fact that the colleges are out for the summer, but it would seem that at least to some degree, many hip-hop fans have forgotten about Vast and Vordul.But the fans that did show up to watch the return of the Ox, certainly got hyped when the duo took the stage, coming out to The Cold Vein's first track, "Iron Galaxy." On-stage, the duo showed few signs of rust, both sounding crystal clear and both showcasing powerful and commanding flows. Live, the two seemed to have put in their rehearsal time, as the every transition and ad-lib was perfectly timed.
In particular, Vast Aire was ferocious on the mic. Tremendously large, Vast must be 6'7, 350 lbs. and on-stage he comes across as a mixture between Biggie and MF Doom, two rappers who mastered the art of following up witty playful punch-lines with viciously sharp and menacing boasts. The intricacies and complex wordplay of Vast's lyrics translated nicely to the live setting, as his flow was liquid and effortless, never overwhelming the beat once, but never failing to rock the room. And Vordul was no slouch either, with a flow more halting and choppy, but yet still powerful. Coupled with their tracks from The Cold Vein, the concert got off to a roaring start, as the duo blasted through ridiculously great renditions of "Atom," and a "B-Boy's Alpha."
Say I Look Like Biggie One More Time, Bitch. Just Try It.But the set devolved from there, seemingly embodying the problems involved in being a hip-hop duo. Both Vast and Vordul wanted their time to shine individually, performing a cut or two apiece from both of their solo efforts. While these songs weren't bad per se, they couldn't match up with the power of the Cold Vein work and the energy in the room seemed to drop, as the fans weren't familiar with the material. Additionally, their DJ did a very nice mini-five minute DJ set scratching and mixing "Guillotine (Swords)" from Only Built For Cuban Linx.
But ultimately, the crowd didn't want to hear Raekwon, solo Vast Aire or solo Vordul, they wanted to see the duo in action again. And after a 15 minute break, the group returned to more Cold Vein material, including live versions of "Pigeon," "Real Earth," and "Stress Rap." But just as everyone was settling into the show, it was over, just like that, following the unveiling of a new album track that promises to be great if they ever end up finishing the album.
Megillah Means Scroll in Hebrew. Whether or Not Vordul Megilah is a fan of the Book of Purim Remains to be Seen.
The set itself was much too short, clocking in at just 35 minutes with no encore. The fans, most of whom were die-hards, were left bickering and muttering curses about how they felt cheated by such a short performance. And I did too.
After four songs, I was convinced that this was going to turn out to be one of the greatest hip-hop shows I've ever witnessed, but sadly that was the night's apex. Cannibal Ox live reinforced the difficulties inherent in being in a group. To function well as a duo, both members of a group need to be willing to subvert their egos to get on the same page. Thus far, Cannibal Ox have yet to do so, but the fact that they're touring again is a good sign.
They certainly showed flashes of brilliance, enough to make me think that they have what it takes to be the best hip-hop group around. Whether they'll fulfill their early promise is anyone's guess. Ultimately, Cannibal Ox's set was like their career thus far: a whole lot of promise, but not nearly enough songs to show for it. Truth be told, I'm rooting for these guys. They certainly have the talent to be one of the greatest groups in hip-hop history. Whether they'll fulfill that potential, who knows?
Passion of the Weiss Rating: 7.2
Also check out Slushy Gutter Summer's take on the Cannibal Ox show in Boulder last Thursday, where from the sounds of it, they played for more than a half an hour.