The angles from which to approach Vordul Mega as a solo entity have been pretty well exhausted by the music press at this point, the most common of which has been to decide whether “that other guy in Cannibal Ox” can carry his own album. It was as half of Cannibal Ox that Vordul (credited as Vordul Megilah in that group, which also comprises Vast Aire) helped create 2001’s The Cold Vein, which tops most every hip-hop best-of-this-century-so-far list. Breathing life into the Cannibal Ox Is Not Dead myth of mythic proportions is “Handle That” on Revolution of the Yung Havoks, a track that “features” Cannibal Ox (meaning it includes Vast Aire).
So the question is clear: Is Vordul making a solo record because Cannibal Ox is dead? According to Prefix‘s interview with Vast Aire, not at all. And let’s face it: Our shrill hand-wringing over the symbolic connotations of Vast’s and Vordul’s solo albums this year is all a bit ridiculous. Hip-hop artists sometimes work together, sometimes alone, and sometimes with new people — that’s how the game is played, so let’s move on.
On Revolution of the Yung Havoks, Vordul mostly raps about Harlem, where he grew up and still lives. Essentially, he covers two bases — how his life is and how he wishes it were — and there’s a pretty significant disconnect between the two. Although Vordul has redemptive moments of hope, Revolution is heavy music — it’ll have you feeling a little frosty yourself. The excellent “Neva Again” is just one of several guided tours through Vordul’s uptown neighborhood, and, in a relatively rare moment of autobiography, he mentions the painful memory of his father’s “getting locked in the rib.” On “Holla Ill,” as recapitulation to his epic “Life’s ill, sometimes life might kill” canto from The Cold Vein, he raps, “Tryin’ to live and be positive/ But it seems like a lot to give/ In the fields when all e’body wanna do is chill/ And that’s cool, but some’ll kill for the dollar bills/ So we livin’ ill.”
A few of Revolution‘s songs might have you wonder if Vordul’s gone soft, specifically the soul-searching “Pray” and “Megallah.” True, he’s at his best when his buttery flow is matched with intense, aggressive beats. But the honesty of Vordul’s emotion is legitimately disarming, and when he raps, “It’s disgusting, we stay busted,” on “Holla Ill,” the desire to transcend inescapable conditions (besought by New York’s social, financial and educational segregation) is palpable. “Blade,” the album’s best song, is part hope for the future, part despair of the present, and part nostalgia for an era when he was simply less aware, all beautifully dropped over a warm organ and hand claps. “Remembering days/ When we used to play/ Now we get blazed/ Tryin’ to escape,” he smoothly intones as the song’s climactic chorus.
Hip-hop albums with this kind of stance (or anti-stance) are very infrequent. Vordul transforms struggle into transcendence, admits weakness and seems to care less about material or metaphorical bling than, like he mentions on “Stay Up,” eating square meals with collard greens and having a little green tucked away under the mattress. But his holy grail, as expressed on the grim “Hard Times” is more basic: “Gotta get out.”