Vast Aire - "The Verdict Feat Guilty Simpson" (OX 2010: A Street Odyssey)
I find myself rating a lot of things against Cannibal Ox’s “Iron Galaxy.” Other Cannibal Ox songs, different peanut butter spreads, ex-girlfriends, the weather, you name it: if it can be judged, I’ve probably at some time or another said, “Yeah, but it’s no ‘Iron Galaxy’.” Its six minutes sum up everything great not just about The Cold Vein or Cannibal Ox or even the Def Jux roster at its millennial zenith — “Iron Galaxy” is about the promise of hip-hop as a genre fulfilled. From the abstract stream-of-consciousness street lyrics to El-P’s orbital beat to the sample to the prophesy of a post-9/11 New York to that clip from The Big Chill, this is what hip-hop sounds like at its very best.
It’s also lightning in a bottle, and though a lot of people can’t let it go, the three dudes behind The Cold Vein have tried their damnedest to varying degrees of success. Backpack-leaning Vordul Mega and street-savvy Vast Aire split from El-P and each other to pursue their own muses. It’s no surprise these solo pursuits resulted in more extreme versions of their personalities together: El rode his dystopian nightmare through a few solo albums and seems content to continue doing so; Vordul got more socially conscious on Yung World and Megagraphitti in particular; Vast dumped his more intuitive, subtle moments for straight braggadocio in The Weathermen and on Look, Mom… No Hands and Dueces Wild. His exaggerated pronunciations lend themselves well to that sort of thing, but an album full of vacuous (not to mention inaccurate) pronouncements is tiring.
If Vast thought that using the Ox name in the title of his latest album on the 10th anniversary of The Cold Vein’s release would trick fans and recapture some of that missing magic, the songs of OX 2010: A Street Odyssey vividly illustrate that Vast can’t do it alone. The sci-fi fascination is still there — opening skit “Intro Ox 9000” is a painfully drawn-out Kubrick cop, several of these beats sound like El-P imitations, “Dark Matter (Feat. Space),” the cover, etc. — but at its heart, this album is still a Vast solo release and no amount of nudging to remember when can change that.
“Horoscope” is the love jam and “Battle of the Planets” is another shot in the Cage beef from two years ago no one cares about, but beyond that it’s all insistent space-streets contrasting. He recruits Cappadonna, Raekwon and Guilty Simpson to emphasize the point with some name recognition, then drives it home with a brief CanOx reunion as Vordul pops up for the militant “Thor’s Hammer.” These guys have very different styles from Aire’s cartoonish delivery, but the collaborations all illustrate the greater point: Even if the topic is cocaine dealing, OX 2010 is at its best when Vast Aire has someone to play off. It’s cruel that he shines with restraint, when he’s got the counterweight of other personalities to keep him in check and bars to bring his strongest punch(lin)es.
It has always been thus. “And you don’t wanna try my angle / because I’m so obtuse,” he sings on “Dark Matter,” which is more true here than it’s been in a long time. That’s refreshing to be sure, but this feels like a bait-and-switch where Vast is overcompensating, force-feeding borrowed nostalgia for an album that rightfully never had a follow-up. Does the world need a Cold Vein clone from one of its own architects? OX 2010 says yes, but when obtuse means nonsensical and there’s no one consistently there to tie the free associations together, it becomes less a case of judging Vast on his own street odyssey and more a case, ironically, of falling back to where we started in the least desirable way: It’s good, yeah, but it’s no “Iron Galaxy.”