Sometimes an artist’s stature in a culture grows way beyond their control, when one good release unexpectedly catches fire and leaves those responsible in an uncomfortably powerful position. Cannibal Ox, who released a legendary record, The Cold Vein, in 2001 and subsequently stayed quiet for much of the following 14 years, most likely felt serious pressure to do justice to their incredibly small but passionately enjoyed legacy with Blade of the Ronin. But whether they realized they weren’t the rappers they once were or they wanted to move on to new territory (or — the most likely scenario — a little of both), their long overdue sophomore record is surprisingly different. It feels as much like Cannibal Ox are trying to put out the flames of their debut 14 years later as it does that they want to prove they can still make something spectacular. In the end, neither of these goals are met, but Blade of the Ronin, on the strength of its pure hip-hop ethos alone, still stands solid. That should be enough for fans.
Blade of the Ronin, as a return album, is a curious effort. Rather than make a strong personal statement, Cannibal Ox go broad, bringing in as many as 12 guest artists (including big-hitters like MF Doom and U-God) for the album’s 19 tracks, filling out the runtime with plenty of middling feature verses that only serve to pad the songs out. “Gotham (Ox City)” and “Psalm 82”, two songs shared over two years ago, appear on the record as well. All of this lends Blade of the Ronin the feeling of a compilation record, less the singular, consistent work that The Cold Vein was and more of a broadly realized, shotgun blast of acerbic left-field hip-hop.
It’s still a confident and celebratory record, even as the group hides behind shorter cuts and more outside voices. It’s not unlike Jay-Z and Kanye West’s scattershot 2011 collaborative effort Watch the Throne — loaded with high-profile guest spots, out-of-the-box production and brag-heavy rhymes — but it’s targeted more toward a cerebral underground rap audience. Longtime fans would do well to adjust their expectations, at any rate; Cannibal Ox show reliable prowess as hard-edged rappers, but a follow-up to a novel, inventive record — especially one with as big a cultural footprint as The Cold Vein — will almost always be less interesting.
The beats aren’t as dynamic and the raps aren’t as athletic, but Blade of the Ronin still pulses with energy. Production from Bill Cosmiq doesn’t fill the immense shoes of El-P, but he also doesn’t try to; rather than the quiet, ethereal beats of The Cold Vein, Cosmiq toys with vocal samples under retro, hard-hitting boom bap drums, sounding less like underground hip-hop and a little more like the mainstream, either from two decades ago or today. The Wu-Tang influence that rang through the debut is a little less direct as a result, with the whole product sounding aesthetically tighter and less weird, but also blander and a little forced.
Cannibal Ox aren’t pushing anything experimental anymore, rightfully aware of their limitations as much as they are of their debut’s legendary stature. For all its off-beat braggadocio, Blade of the Ronin is a modest, dignified return for one of underground hip-hop fans’ long lost favorites. It won’t be a memorable record, but for fans who have waited this long for something new, it provides.