LOVE LETTER TO A CLASSIC: CANNIBAL OX – THE COLD VEIN

Have you ever noticed when you’re insufferably cold, it’s all you can think about? 

The body clenches and stutters in freezing temperatures, the mind craves warmth and refuge. Every action is shone through this prism.

Pieces of music often elicit flickers of emotion, gently reviving impulses and thought trains – however, rarely do they conjure fully-fleshed feelings of constant urgency; of survival.

But then, albums like Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein are rare in the extreme. 

The premier full-length release from underground New York label, Def Jux, 2001’s The Cold Vein brought the opening salvo of the early 00s indie rap boom, marking a sound and aesthetic that would reverberate for years to come. 

Built of two Harlem emcees, Vast Aire and Vordul Mega, and backed up with production from Company Flow trailblazer and label founder, El-P, the album is equal parts foundational and astoundingly original. A thorny fusion of street narratives, socio-economic frustration and dystopian fervour, The Cold Vein is served at absolute zero.

And it’s icy from the first blast, as the opening dial tones on curtain-raiser ‘Iron Galaxy’ strike automatous dread reminiscent of a Russian Numbers Station. Distorted back-and-forth vocal exchanges are the preamble for Mega’s roundhouse intro: “Life’s ill/ Sometimes life might kill/ Vordul Mega, five digits, grab mics strike type ill/”. 

Six explosive minutes of juddery instrumentals, staccato flows, and forceful recounts of inner city New York life later, the track peaks in gritty scratched samples and pinwheeling loops. You’re fucking in it now. 

‘Ox out the Cage’ keeps up the pressure. Vast Aire is masterful with the diction, bringing exemplary wordplay and a weaponised finesse in his delivery. The duo’s other half, Vordul, is supernaturally good. Bursting on to every track with an aggressive hunger, and spitting with a voice forged of granite and brimstone, Mega relentlessly reels-off lyrics like his tongue is stuck on auto-fire and he can’t miss. 

All of this against El-P’s virtuoso production is a sound to behold. It represents (in this author’s opinion) his best work; the sounds invade the mind’s eye, creating backdrops of slick concrete reflecting orange lights. 

At this point in 2000-01, El-P was in the trapeze leap between raw and refined – and The Cold Vein is testament to that, whirring with a clanking elegance, at once chaotic and precise. 

The Cold Vein is exceptional for many reasons. It represents a raw, unedited account of life in permanent agitation, while documenting everything that comes with it. Gritty virtues aside, as a hip-hop head, this album brings unbridled joy in seeing three figures at the absolute peak of their powers, displaying the full gamut of their repertoire. 

From Vast Aire’s musings about unrequited love on ‘The F Word’: “She was in a love triangle/ But it wasn’t like my feelings weren’t there to make it a square/ Pennies for her thoughts/ She’s my very own American Beauty/ Red petals when we talk/”, to Vordul’s rewind-button-pushing syllabic rampage on ‘Vein’ – the quality is inexhaustible.

On the production, El-P lives up to his reputation as rap’s hellmouth of sinister beats, whether it’s unnerving ears with the bubbling-clot-in-your-blood drums on ‘Raspberry Fields’, the tortured, corrupted howling at the end of ‘Vein’, or the anxious snares on ‘Painkillers’ – the ex-Company Flow member is an auteur of sonic paranoia.

And while the project is undoubtedly a winter album, it has a tone for all seasons. ‘Stress Rap’ is an excellent commentary on the pent-up aggression that people carry with them every single day – 365 days-a-year. Depicting a citywide pressure cooker “full of nothing but stressed cats”, where anyone can get got among the oppressive tension “in these inner city mazes” – a labyrinth of cold veins.

Around the time of its release, El-P spoke of The Cold Vein seeking to combine elements of “beauty and sorrow”. And nowhere is this marriage more apparent than on the devastating cut, ‘Pigeon’. 

Undoubtedly the album’s apex, ‘Pigeon’ sees Vordul and Vast – coming in over a sample of Jaco Pastorius’ iconic ‘Portrait of Tracy’ – waxing about maintaining defiance in hopelessness and staying fly regardless of what’s in front of you. 

Vordul closes out the track beautifully: “Rocking my ‘hell I made it’ wetsuit stitch/ So I can swim in elevators crazy wet through piss/ I rock my simulated air tank bit/ So I can leave pressures of oxygen where my mic’s lit/ I’m just a pigeon.” Mega’s words hit as the instrumental rises like a water line, spiking into a melancholic, screeching outro and an imagined nightscape of blinking lights on high rises. 

Listening now, it’s interesting to ponder whether everyone involved understood the gravity of the art they were making. There’s a strong self-awareness on certain songs, take Vast Aire on ‘Scream Phoenix’ reciting his opening bars from ‘Pigeon’ before abruptly stopping with a dismissive “no, no, no”, before continuing assuredly. 

Weaving mistakes into your performance? Throwing out callbacks to songs on the same album? Demonstrating the album’s essence in a single gesture? This is the audacity it takes to create legendary material. 

Similarly, there is clearly a sense that issues explored in the album would merely intensify. El-P, who has a smattering of guest verses across the project, offers his synopsis on ’Ridiculoid’, prophetically spitting: “Binge and purge, we live in 30 second blurbs/ And if consumers stopped existing, we’d forget how to use words/ Just fuckin’ eat each other until the next ice age occurs”. 

I guess the biggest challenge is saying anything new about The Cold Vein; an album residing among the very best of the genre. With time, it retains an enduring relevance, and the project’s legacy, ultimately, is that we haven’t left its axis. 

Life is a ceaseless war of attrition. Nearly two decades later, cold, surviving, stressed – we are still wrapped in the vein. 

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