Is it weird that even though I have, in the past, railed against albums that seem to go out of their way to fill an 80 minute disc I still think both cLOUDDEAD and The Cold Vein are two of the best examples of hip hop albums this decade? The latter is a full 75 minutes long and the former just barely misses that mark, yet in both cases the sprawl seems more than warranted. Of course my usual reasons for docking any album for out-staying its welcome is that there’s an obvious element of filler present, whether it’s in the form of skits or just a bunch of half-baked ideas that reek of afterthought. That sort of thing seems especially prevalent in hip hop albums for whatever reason, so seeing an over 70-minute runtime is usually enough reason for me to start out skeptical. Yet in both cases here the length isn’t just justified, it’s downright necessary.
Take cLOUDDEAD for instance. You could make a convincing argument for the material it was culled from to have been edited down for a CD release, but to me the whole point of the album is to demonstrate sprawl in both style and length. There more elements of sound collage and DJ mix in the structure than there is hip hop, with Nosdam’s production stringing together a series of fragments on each track rather than creating what could be deemed as traditional songs. Additionally, the production seems to owe more to Brian Eno and Boards of Canada than even the most out-there production from the Anticon collective, foreshadowing the direction Nosdam would develop further on his solo outings. Even before you figure in the unique vocal styles of the two MCs present you’ve already got one of the more uncompromisingly un-hip hop hip hop albums of the decade based on the structure and sonics alone.
Given the emphasis on structure over content there aren’t many truly memorable moments, but that’s not really the point here. Each individual piece here is a minor masterpiece of sorts, taking a series of unrelated movements and working them together without making the transitions seem forced. When the two MCs and their occasional guests step into the spotlight it’s not normally in a standard way either. Sure the Sole guest spot on “And All You Can Do Is Laugh” is pretty normal, but when it’s just Dose and Why? left to their own devices things take a turn for the delightfully abstract, like the apparent tribute to a friend who committed suicide “Jimmy Breeze” or the almost devoid of rapping in any way, shape or form “Bike”. I’m tempted to not even call it hip hop since it only bears a passing resemblance to any other facet of the genre, but whatever it is, it’s one of the most singular releases of the decade and is thoroughly fascinating even when it veers off course.
Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein is similarly fascinating, but for pretty much the exact opposite reasons. cLOUDDEAD relied on sprawl, ambience and diversity, The Cold Vein – which, truth be told, is probably the better of the two – relies on a much more focused, harsh and concise attack. Now, when I say ‘focused’ I don’t necessarily mean that the whole album sounds the same; the focus is mostly a by-product of the ferocity that MCs Vordul Mega and Vast Aire come at each track with. These are two of the most clever, versatile and intelligent MCs I’ve heard, twisting any number of typical hip hop tropes into a weird mélange of the surreal and the visceral. “Raspberry Fields” is a real tour de force in this area, with the two rappers giving their version of an old rap cliché, the ‘my band is better than your band’ brag track in this case, but elevating it with a torrent of absolutely mind-bending lines. ‘You’ve got beef but there’s worms in your Wellington/I’ll put a hole in your skull and extract the gelatin’ gets all the glory, and rightfully so, but the best part of that whole section is the fact that Vast Aire goes through the first verse twice after he gets the punchline wrong the first time. Then there’s ‘Your girl’s sex technology/I wanna plug in’ which might stand as the best way to express the basic ‘I’ll fuck your girl’ thought that pops up in a lot of that type of tracks. Elsewhere the duo get more introspective (“A B-Boy’s Alpha” and “The F-Word”) emotional (the closing duo of “Pigeon” and “Scream Phoenix”) and combative (“Battle of Asgard”) but they never go at the tracks with anything less than full force. That alone makes its length bearable; nothing would ruin an album like this more than some phoned-in verses or MCs that can’t hypnotize the listener with their flow the way Vast and Vordul can.
Of course it would be a huge disservice to The Cold Vein to not mention the production, as it’s easily among the best work El-P has done to date. Sure it’s just a variant on his usual post-apocalyptic soundscapes that he’s been pushing forth since the Company Flow Days, but each time he brings it out he does enough to push it forward that it never seems to get old. Here it’s not as uncompromisingly bleak as on his solo albums, even getting some rather lighthearted moments (“Painkillers”) to mingle with stuff like the harsh, skittery “Raspberry Fields” or the epic, guitar aided “Pigeon” and “Ox Out of the Cage.” He also makes use of some of the most unprecedented samples I’ve seen on a hip hop album, everything from a pair of Brian Eno tracks mixed with Laurie Anderson on “Raspberry Fields” to second-tier proggers Nektar played against Ramsey Lewis on “Battle for Asgard” with a couple of Philip Glass samples thrown in to boot. It all coalesces under El-P’s hand to make for as consistent and cohesive a set of songs as you’re likely to find in any stripe of hip hop this decade.