The Passion of the Weiss

Sometimes I rhyme slow, sometimes I rhyme quick. But most of the time, I don't rhyme.

Monday, July 17, 2006

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.

10 Comments:

At 10:24 AM, Anonymous zilla said...

I'm not shocked at the Ox dropping the ball towards the end of their gig.
I caught them live in October '01 in Philly on one of the first Def Jux tours (back when it was a rarity to see a DJX trucker hat). This was the perfect setting for a live rendition of "Cold Vein"--one month after 9/11 and only several months removed from Cannibal Ox being annointed the "next shit" by every hip hop geek with a pen or a keyboard.
Although I love "Cold Vein," that day I paid my hard earned bucks to see Aesop Rock, who was about to drop his last great album "Labor Days." Sadly, he was sick and wouldn't close the show; the task was left to Vast Aire and Vordul.
Vast quickly let the audience know that his throat was sore or some shit and they wouldn't be able to pull off a full set.
What they did give us a 20 min. rundown of the "Cold Vein" with songs cut in half, minimal crowd participation, absolutely no flair from Vordul and a general lacksadasical approach to a live hip hop show. In short, it was the worst hip hop show I'd ever seen.
Since then, I've haven't been a zealot for Ox, and their solo albums were cold garbage at best. Hearing that Pete Rock and RZA were working on their new album alongside EL-P was interesting 4 months ago. Oh well. "B-Boy Alpha" is still my shit.

 
At 2:00 PM, Blogger Passion of the Weiss said...

I'll still throw down on Bazooka Tooth as a great album, though it took me about 100 listens to fully come to that opinion. I can definitely see how those beats could throw off people. I think Aesop is a good producer, but I think he and Blockhead had a really good thing going on and it's a shame they don't collaborate more. Vordul's solo jaunt is mediocre..true..but Vast's has it's moments, but it's too scattershot and lacks focus. in my opinion what their solo albums really show is how important El-P was to the Cold Vein's sound. But like I said, I'm rooting for them and hoping on that next album.

 
At 2:42 PM, Blogger Commish CH said...

Naughty By Nature was another hip-duo with the syndrome of the "star" lead rapper and the cat in the background.

Cypress Hill could fall in that realm as well.

 
At 5:03 PM, Blogger amphimacer said...

About the rock duos and the chance to keep things together longer? Doesn't jibe with the history. Lennon and McCartney? Simon and Garfunkel? Sam and Dave? Broke up acrimoniously. All duos head that way, from Gilbert and Sullivan, who apparently hated each other, to Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who don't seem to appear at any of the same functions since the year 2000. The duos who stay together longer seem to be those where one of the two is in the spotlight and the other is part of the background (Jagger and Richard is a good example), but even these have their breakups. It's just not natural for two people to work together without incident, unless they see the world in exactly the same way, or have ways to work off their differences (time apart, mainly). Think of the people you have spent a lot of time working with, or a roommate you got along great with, for a while. That just doesn't go on forever. But then, after some time apart, many of these pairs seem to find each other again, often with fine results, realizing that what separated them was less important than what had brought them together in the first place. Life lessons . . .

 
At 6:18 PM, Blogger Passion of the Weiss said...

But the difference is all those duos but out anywhere from 5 to 10 albums...hip hop duos make it three if they're lucky. Outkast are considered vets in the rap world for putting out 5 albums. The Beatles doubled that. I agree though, it's definitely a trend that dissolves all groups, but I think it's magnified in rap.

 
At 3:12 AM, Blogger Douglas Reinhardt said...

I think this one of the reasons why I stopped going to rap shows because I was always left wanting more unless it was you know DJ Shadow playing or like Jurassic 5 doing some corny freestyle session while Nu Mark & Cut Chemist goof on the turntables.

Pete Rock doing tracks for anybody on paper sounds good and usually it is (the dude made Jim Jones sound decent last summer), but Rock & Cannibal O just doesn't mix well for me. Cannibal Ox if anything is a three person group. Vast, Vordul & EL.

 
At 10:39 AM, Anonymous Zilla said...

Jeff--
"Bazooka Tooth" is a strong album, no doubt. But Blockhead's beats on "Labor Days" I feel fit Aesop better than his own beats on "Bazooka Tooth." "Fast Cars" EP was aiiight. Ace is getting there on the beats, but not quite up to Blockhead.

I agree whole heartedly with Douglas--without El-P, Vast and Vordul got exposed as awkward-ass geek rappers without the proper background. Vast Aire doesn't have the swagger or flow to carry a Madlib or RJD2 beat solo and Vordul is too dense and boring to carry an entire LP solo. Hopefully they learned that they all benefit from working as a unit. It's like EPMD or something.

 
At 3:24 PM, Blogger Ian said...

I stopped going to rap shows because they pretty much suck 99% of the time. That's right...put the microphone CLOSER to your mouth. It totally makes it sound better!

 
At 4:21 PM, Blogger Nate said...

I'm just waiting for the inevitable grouping of the rap duo Weiss and Crockett followed by the all to clich├ęd bitter break up. Can I be your manager?

 
At 2:11 AM, Blogger David said...

You just couldn't resist dropping the line "naive at best and at worst disturbingly ignorant," could you.
By the way, Starsky & Hutch was a much better movie than Rushmore or Bottle Rocket.

 

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