The second part of our look back at the best hip hop albums of the decade. This time, 2001 and Cannibal Ox, Roots Manuva and Aesop Rock.
Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein (May 2001)
“I grab the mic like ‘Are You Experienced?’,
But I don’t play the guitar,
I play my cadence.”
We’d waited. Oh how we’d waited. Through record label wrangling, through amicable separations, and through a tortuous creative process, we waited for El-P to rise from the ashes of Company Flow. And when he came back, he came back on the boards and delivered a work of complete, unbridled genius.
As soon as you hit play, The Cold Vein’s production pulls you in. At points it sounds like a dystopian sci-fi soundtrack, at others like a requiem to the vitality of the inner cities, sometimes simply like Wildstyle’s awkward younger brother. Computerised roars, melancholic synths, mechanical clicks and whirs sit, layer upon layer, over classic boom-bap. It was no surprise that an instrumental version of the album dropped within a year – El-P had excelled himself.
In spite of its mastery, not once can the production be said to overshadow the lyrical content or its delivery. The highest praise you can give Vast Aire and Vordul Mega is that they go toe-to-toe with the beats from start to finish. Somehow they spit lyrics with the finesse of fine literature whilst retaining total hip-hop credibility. This is a lament to inner city decline, to the pains of growing up amongst its ruins – to the tortures of modern life. Relationship angst and the sound of love’s innocence lost on The F-Word. Struggling through poverty on Stress Rap. Searching for self-identity on Pigeon.
As we approach The Cold Vein’s tenth birthday, it sounds as relevant and cutting-edge as the day it was released. It’s the sound of three people with the world at their feet. The enduring mystery is how two of the trio could never scale these heights again. Is El-P hip-hop’s equivalent of an auteur director, drawing masterful performances from average actors?
Pigeon (From the Revenge of the Robots DVD)
Roots Manuva – Run Come Save Me (August 2001)
It never got better for Rodney Smith than the summer of 2001. Wherever Witness (1 Hope) dropped, it smashed it to bits. The first time you heard that tune, it sounded like something from the moon. Hip-hop met dancehall, met the best of UK dance music – and took on a life all of it’s own. When the album dropped a month later, there wasn’t a UK head out there that slept on it.
Charismatic, eccentric, a dreamer – all these adjectives describe Roots Manuva well. And those wonderful warm summer days of 2001 got wrapped up in that mix – immortalised on Run Come Save Me. When you first bought the album, all you could do was skip straight to Witness (1 Hope) and bump it on repeat. Then, the more you listened to the album, the more you heard the genius at work.
The straight boom-bap of Join The Dots, the weed-soaked daze of Dub Styles, and the warm embrace of a boozy summer buzz on Dreamy Days. It’s an album that lights a fire under your feet and then pulls the strings of your heart.
I met Rodney – or perhaps I met his Roots Manuva persona – on his tour for this album, just before he went on stage. To meet him then was to meet a man almost confused by the hysteria that surrounded him for a couple of brief years. In a fog of booze and weed, and surrounded by a gaggle of adoring girls, he was living the rock and roll dream. “What are you gonna do tonight, Rodney?” I asked him, hoping to get a sneak preview of the set list. “I’m gonna have a lot of fun” he slurred. And nobody who’s met him would say he deserves any less.
Aesop Rock – Labor Days (September 2001)
The first day I heard Labor Days was also the first day I ever heard Aesop Rock. It blew my mind. From that moment on, he wasn’t just one of my favourite rappers, he was one of my favourite musicians, period. When we interviewed him in 2008 and saw him live, he was everything a hero should be – a physical giant of a man, thoughtful, interesting and full of time for his fans. Yet, when I first bumped Labor Days, I knew none of that.
All I knew was that I’d heard no other rapper weave philosophical, political and sociological thought together with such detail. The record overflowed with complex, multi-syllabic rhymes, overlapping vocal layers and turns of phrase that were just straight dope. When the album finished, I just hit play and listened to it all over again, twice more.
Best of all, Aes Rock had done the knowledge. Aesop Rock knew his hip-hop. You thought so when you heard the “yes, yes, y’all” on Daylight, you were pretty sure when you heard the Raekwon sample scratched through Coma , and by the time you heard the opening line to Boombox, “Raw, Imma give to ya”, you knew he was down.
Yet every tune followed the old-school nods with mentions of George Orwell’s 1984, and Marxist thoughts on the working class in the USA. For me, still all-consumed with 36 Chambers and fresh out of a degree in politics, it couldn’t get any better. Yet it must have appealed to more than just my rather niche market, as there is little argument that Labor Days is one of the finest albums of the decade.