Allow us to reintroduce ourselves: Our name is Rec-Room Therapy. Each week, we debate, discuss, and dissect recent hip hop tracks. Today, we take trudge through the sewers of Gotham with a resurrected Cannibal Ox, feel feelings with RZA and James Blake, and shoot some hoops with Queens collective World’s Fair. Along for the ride is our distinguished panel of Joshua Phelps, Marcus Dowling, Brianna Younger, Phil R, Joseph “Jiggawatts” Minock, Damion McLaren, Aaron Miller, and Hip Hop Hooray‘s Leah Manners.
Cannibal Ox: “Gotham (Ox City)”
Over a dozen years after the release of The Cold Vein, Cannibal Ox is finally – amazingly, surprisingly – poised to follow up its seminal debut. This time around, however, the duo will not be joined by El-P, the producer credited for taking Vast Aire and Vordul Mega’s hard-as-fuck rhymes and launching them into outer space. And while the two make remerge in a starkly different rap landscape, Vast Aire says, “The timing is right now for a new Cannibal Ox record. Iron Galaxy Record is about to take over.” “Gotham (Ox City)” is the first shot in that takeover, the A-side of a forthcoming maxi-single.
Marcus: Obviously, you have to dig the lyricism on this track. The one thing I love about the veterans putting out material these days is that they aren’t feeling a need to dawdle and engage in over-sentimentality and attempting to make “game changing” statements. There’s a clear market out there that says great rap for great rap’s sake is more than enough, and I greatly appreciate the folks playing to that. A Cannibal Ox record without El-P behind the boards feels strange, though, but given his big past two years, I’d imagine his asking price is crazy high. Instead, we get a track that feels the same, almost homage-like, giving “Gotham” an “old house shoes” type feel that works well for a niche market that’s likely thirsting for a record like this.
Aaron: With so many years between now and unfuckwithable classics like Cold Vein and the not-quite-full feeling I get from the solo/side ventures, the Hater in me knows this track rates no higher than a strong 7.5. Having said that, there are days when I wish all rap sounded like this. The paranoid-esoteric-struggle-obsessed-anti-everything-underground-purist weirdo in me just listened to this track six times in a row. I like my rap with darkness and this track makes me feel like Batman with Limited edition Batman Addidas on. co-sign on Marcus’ point about “…great rap for great rap’s sake.” Some might call it Formula, I like to think of it as an archetype at this point.These cats come from a short lived era where Rap was perfect no matter what you were into. I always look forward to them taking us back a little.
Leah: I’d be lying if I didn’t say this track is a total hit of nostalgia for me more than anything else. I must have bumped Cold Vein hundreds of times in the first few years after it came out, in part because of how futuristic it sounded, mostly due to El-P. And Marcus is right, the production on this track maintains the El-P sound in a way that feels like an homage, or an effort at continuity. I think they knew if they tried to go #swag #trap, they’d lose everything they gained in 2001. And the funny thing is, it still sounds futuristic to me, and that they’ve gotten older makes it all the more gritty and dark, which is what Aaron and I can really dig on. CanOx for life.
Joey: Production like this is such a nice departure from all the oozy, synth-y stuff that I’m hearing a lot nowadays. It’s very lo-fi – for lack of a better term – but, man, does it capture that “struggle in the city” theme. They got the drum hitting on the same count throughout the whole song, never straying very much, except for the occasional scratch between chorus and verse, and it really lets Vast Aire and Vordul Mega shine without so much as a bass line. Also, I just love that they let it run for a solid minute and a half after the last verse while it sort of reaches an ominous denouement. It’s a lost art, and I always appreciate it so much when I hear it done so well.
James Blake ft. RZA: “Take a Fall for Me”
The two most surprising things found in the announcement of James Blake’s second LP were the words “featuring RZA.” Things get weirder this week with the release of Overgrown and the revelation that RZA’s contribution is more than just a guest verse: “Take a Fall for Me” is a legitimate three and half minutes of The Abbot.
Phelps: This is a great song. Miles away form the more sexually aggressive persona of Bobby Digital, The RZA lays out sweet – if not desperate – lyrics over a Blake production as quietly fragile as the lyrics are vibrantly emotional. I’d listen to this on a sunny day, but in dark times, it can slide nicely next to something like Kanye’s “Say You Will,” looking through old pictures with the blackout curtains drawn.
Marcus: What a gem this is! The RZA rapping over something that sounds like the logical progression of something he would have produced 20 years ago absolutely made me smile a bit as I listened, and continues a trend of rappers gracefully growing old. I enjoy how thoughtful and wistful this is, as there’s really not much else you can accomplish if you decide to creatively set yourself deep into that groove.
Aaron: I feel weird right now. James Blake is one of those dudes who exudes quality on pretty much all fronts, but still manages to bore me to a peaceful, deathlike coma. His Mt. Kimbie affiliation wakes me up a little, but then I get really tired again and just wanna bang Clams Casino or some old Burial. He gets Brian goddamned Eno on a record and still manages to bore me.
Now let’s talk RZA: 1) Even more than usual, I just barely know what the fuck he’s talking about, despite my fluency in Wu-Tang; and 2) I’m pretty sure this is a love jam for a girl who’s really creeped out right now. The only thing saving this track from potential waackness is the dissonant fact that the RZA is fundamentally un-wack and fresh to death. Quality as it may be, this pair up is just odd. It feels forced. I almost fell asleep before I could throw up a proper W. If you’ll allow me to channel Big Ghost for a moment: “…the fuck yo? why this sad little kid even up in my square. nahmean? sound like he be cryin and eatin a salad at the same time. for real b. carnival shit. must be this tall to enter the 36 Chambers. nahmean? you gotta get a note from moms or somethin’ fore you kick it with the Abbot.”
Bri: Well we all know (or should know) that I’m emo as hell. That said, whenever emo-rap happens and it works, I’m all over it. I love the affair that James Blake is having with hip hop, as nothing but goodness can come from it. Exhibit A: this song right here. The production is kind of creepy, but RZA’s vocals smooths it over – but not too much – to make for a wonderfully executed track. I am pleased. And if there’s any truth to the Kendrick and James Blake rumors, I’m beyond excited.
Phil: Am I the only one that can decipher the words that are coming out of RZA’s mouth? Is he rapping at a frequency that only my ears are picking up? “I wouldn’t trade her smile for a million quid”? “Candlelight dinners and fish and chips with the vinegar”? “Swim the English Channel to the Italian Peninsula”? Was RZA ‘s contribution inspired by ten minutes with “Frommer’s Guide to London”? I was half expecting him to find love at the top of Big Ben. This thing might as well have been titled “Take a Fall for Me (Wu Bangers and Mash)”.
Leah: Oh, I understood him correctly, which is why, on the first listen my brain was really uncomfortable with this song. It was asking me if RZA was on the Harlequin Romance/Linda Lael Miller tip (yeah, I read trash sometimes), and then it was just waiting for the killer beez to swarm, but it never happened. What Aaron said is half-right: The RZA language that we’ve all come to love just never appears in this track, and that’s unsettling because we’ve been trained Pavlovian-style to expect it when we hear his lispy lazy voice. But once you throw all that history out the window, you find a track that’s genuinely delivered, well-produced, and interesting in its anomaly. He brought it. Dat gentle, loving ruckus.
Damion: The beat helps tell the story, which makes interesting to me I’ve never been into RZA as much as the other members of Wu, but this is nice.
Joey: WOW THIS IS SAD. Relatedly, I listened to it 15 times in a row. Ultimately, I’ve always felt like RZA, more than most in the Wu-Tang, knows exactly where his strengths lie, and I don’t think he’s trying to set the world on fire with the rapping here. But, hey, the guy is a rapper and I’m gonna let him do his thing. Plus, I’m having some trouble thinking of other rappers with whom I’d be as content putting a rap over this track. He does exactly what works: He tells a coherent, emotionally-wrought story, and one mixed with the spirituality – the shaping powers of sex and truth, marriage on earth and for eternity – for which he is quite well known. My only real knock is that it strikes me as a bit unfortunate that he falls back on that hackneyed “I need you like I need satisfaction” line. Dude, forget Benny Benassi.
World’s Fair: “’96 Knicks”
On “’96 Knicks”, NYC collective World’s Fair reps its hometown with a nod to fellow Queens native 50 Cent (and his “What Up Gansta?”) and plenty of references to the golden years of the New York Knicks – Miami Heat rivalry. Appropriately, this song comes along at a time when that rivalry has being reignited and many are touting a similar “renaissance” in NYC rap.
Phelps: A few things stand out, not the least is which that 50 Cent “What Up Gangsta?” callback off one of Get Rich or Die Tryin’s meanest tracks. I don’t much about World’s Fair, but they seem 90s – down to the A-caps and backpacks – and handle a beat like this deftly. They reference Beatnuts’ “Off The Books” and it makes me long for the days when rappers weren’t so up their own asses that an actual team or group could gain traction: Beatnuts, Group Home, Wu Tang, one offs like the Crooklyn Dodgers.
Marcus: So completely bored with this one. The problem with New York rap is that none of these kids coming up really understand the swagger of what it means to be a New York rapper. The key to New York rap has always been the sense that dudes were out trying to protect the throne of East Coast power, rob you all-of-the-way blind, fuck your girlfriend, or any combination of these goals. We’re now at a place where New York isn’t on top so there’s no throne for these kids to hungrily protect. As well, if the Flatbush Zombies roll up on me in an alley, I’ll be sure to have some dippers handy to keep them occupied, and if Joey Bada$$ wants to fuck my girlfrie…wait…really? Yeaaah, I’m not really too afraid of that happening…
To continue the basketball corollary: New York’s rap scene, at the moment, reminds me of the ’93-’94 Denver Nuggets, aka the underdog, barely-sneaking-into-the playoffs team built around a one-dimensional star (A$AP Rocky as 7’2″ offensive liability and defensive superstar Dikembe Mutombo) and a group of raw yet talented role players who, if given the situation to shine can be brilliant and quite possibly effective. (Rosenberg’s mixtape is the #8 seed Nuggets’ upset success in their first round playoff series against the #1 seed Seattle Supersonics.) What may be even worse than anything else is that none of these kids made any references to Charles Oakley or John Starks, or what would have been best, someone saying they’d “fade you faster than the cuts on Anthony Mason’s head.” Sad.
Aaron: I think this falls firmly into the category of rappers-who-wish-they-were-there. They might be from there geographically, but they don’t hold a torch/crown/candle to the Era they pimp on this track. “Define synergy / Divine energy / In my prime like Nas in ’95 (but) I’m down to ride on my enemies”: Whoever spit this swole-headed line at the beginning of this song needs to slow his proverbial roll. But I guess if you are gonna steal, go big: Some Capone n Noreaga what-what for the hook, a little Mobb Deep-ish hyperbole, and a little Large Professor rip-off beat. It’s like if the Boot Camp Click’s boots came in kids sizes. The homage is obviously sincere, but I can’t help but think that Ju Ju and Psycho Les might slap these kids for the “Off the Books” “reference” rather than hold hands in old school/new school solidarity.
And, this is off topic, but some of these money sign newbie rappers like A$AP Rocky and Joey BadA$$ that mine marketable production techniques from distinctly, ahem, non-New York sounds make me think of Jay Electronica’s warning about “New York n*ggas callin’ southern rappers lame then jackin’ our slang.” That shit still makes me mad.
Leah: I don’t watch basketball and this track is boring. No cohesiveness, limited rhyme talent, overbearing and distracting hollering: I give it a 1.5 out of 5 boroughs.
Damion: I liked this track, but I have to agree with Marcus: How you not gonna mention Ewing, Oakley, and Starks, son?!?! 93-94 Nuggets is the right call here. It’s definitely an underdog.
Phil: To crib a line from James Murphy, “’96 Knicks” is borrowed nostalgia. Most of World’s Fair probably isn’t old enough to even remember the height of boom bap or the Charles Oakley-era Knicks. But, time moves on: John Starks turns 48 this summer, and I’d feel like an old man shouting kids off my lawn to hate on World’s Fair. This is a modest, well-executed song, smart enough not to extend past three minutes, and more enjoyable than the entirety of Lord$ Never Worry.