Cannibal Ox has been on the lam since their debut in 2001. The Cold Vein gave them a reputation before infighting and creative differences with El-P, the album’s producer, made the prospects of a follow-up doubtful. Cooler heads eventually prevailed more than ten years later, and after careful crafting, The Blade of the Ronin is a manifestation of their reunion.
Blade of the Ronin follows a similar blueprint to The Cold Vein. Bill Cosmiq replaces El-P as the sole producer, save for one beat by Black Milk (“Blade: The Art of Ox”). The album also runs on the longer side, with 14 tracks and five skits. Cann Ox has a unique pseudo-spirituality about themselves; their lyrics are wrought with biblical references and wisdom derived from the Nation of Gods and Earths. Musically, Blade of the Ronin has cinematic undertones, with instrumental skits providing a loose inter-track cohesion. The only obstacle is a proneness to monotony.
In terms of delivery, Vordul is consistent and Vast is not. His flow is unpredictable, and his slow raps are an acquired taste. When both of them stick to the basics, though, the dynamic changes and elevates the group. Technicalities aside and aforementioned spirituality notwithstanding, Cannibal Ox caters to the smarter audiences. On “Iron Rose,” Vordul spits: “We made it through hard shit like fish with large fins / The hearts of men, enlightening silence / Writing iron scripts, escaping dark dazes.” Vast, meanwhile, invokes motifs and metaphors pertinent to the subject matter with terse prescience. On “The Fire Rises,” he declares: “I’m a celestial czar / I change my crown of thorns into a crown of stars.” Unsuspecting listeners may not fully appreciate the thought that goes into the rhymes. As a result, if paired with the recurrent unorthodox flows and dense narratives, some songs are more polarizing than others (“Psalm 82;” “Water”).
Bill Cosmiq deserves much credit for the resonating musical vibe. Replacing El-P is no easy task, but he does so admirably, with a myriad of different sounds. “Iron Rose” is magnificent, backdropping grandiose lyrical performances, and the seemly chosen guest, DOOM. Aptly titled, “The Power Cosmiq,” demonstrates his knack for digging with an esoteric sing-songy female vocal sample and heavy drums and synths. Sometimes the beats ride for too long after the verses, interrupting the flow of the album (“Harlem Knights”), or they simply seem misused (“Water”). His work is commendable nonetheless, and the Black Milk contribution is the cherry on top.
Blade of the Ronin is a dense collection of music. Fans of lyricism will appreciate the wordplay, as well as the contributions from artists like Elzhi and DOOM, among many others. The intelligent rhymes are also a unique break from today’s more predictable trends, though they aren’t for everyone. On the production side, Bill Cosmiq provides a powerful musical landscape that plays like a movie. Cannibal Ox put noticeable effort into their first album in 14 years, though such a hiatus likely forced them to take a more conservative approach.