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One on One | Pigeon by Cannibal Ox

by Chris McMichael / 27.04.2012

“Birds of the same feather flock together, congested on a majestic street corner.”

Cannibal’s Ox only full length release, 2001’s The Cold Vein, is arguably the greatest rap album of the last decade. Marked by a remarkable confluence of production and the dense, allusive lyrics of Vast Aire and Vordul Mega, its 75 minutes stalk the kind of psychic terrain which few artists are prepared to explore. Produced by underground legend El-P the beats reach operatic levels: with synthesisers cranked on high it sounds like the soundtrack to Bladerunner melted into Public Enemy. This musical futurism is accompanied by lyrics which depict New York as an everyday dystopia: “crackhead in the basements”, 12 years olds with semi-automatics, “cops Desert Storm the block”: the album came out 4 months before 9/11. This realism is accompanied by surreal images pulled from science fiction and comic books: references to Asgard and Galactus abound. A continual interchange between the ordinary and the cosmic reveals its greatest virtue: it’s palpable, at times painful longing for transcendence.

The constant pull between the need for escape and the pull exerted by the depressive flows of stressful urban existence finds it most poignant expression in the albums last official song : ‘Pigeon’.

Undergrid by drum snares that sound like bones snapping and a ferocious guitar riff, the song begins with Aire imagining himself as the bird of the title. He wanders if he can “fly south before the winter winds trap” you and if wings can allow him to escape “this bullshit ocean of death”. There’s a profound ambivalence: the pigeon can dream to “hover over greater things” but its more likely to “get tossed in the flames where some ornithologist will find your skeletal frame”. The pigeon is a symbol of urban resilience but its survival is dependent on the waste of city life.

As the guitar builds to a crescendo, Vordul enters with a verse that hovers over and describes the life below. Again cryptic details of “archanoids” and “terror toys” coexist with vivid reportage: “humiliated bodega food stamp transactions”, and in one of the albums most arresting lines “he caught you alone fuse blown unemployed screaming that’s why I robbed you”. With its resigned conclusion of “I’m just a pigeon”, the song ends with a final, fractured guitar line. Is it soaring off into the night or is it crashing?

However the listener is provided an exit from the grimness by the hidden track ‘Scream Phoenix’ in which the pigeon escapes the psychical all together, a being of spirit and flame.

It’s a fitting note of victory for an album which dares to face the prospect that to find beauty in the world may require us to unflinchingly face its horrors.

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