I watched Bazooka Tooth on Dutch public television station VPRO many years ago. It’s a documentary about Definitive Jux, a hip-hop label founded by El-P, and I was instantly intrigued by how these guys embodied a whole different shape of hip-hop—a dark, gritty, realistic vision of the world—far away from Kanye West and Jay-Z’s life in the limelight, or Biggie and Tupac’s boastings about money and women. The video introduced me to El-P, C-Rayz Walz, Aesop Rock, and Cannibal Ox—hip-hop does not get any better than The Cold Vein by the latter. I might as well have included the entire track listing of the album for this soundtrack to angsty hip-hop.
Vast Aire and Vordul Mega’s lyrics and delivery are full of gloomy, weary realism, and the entire album feels like a soundtrack for the end times. The beat for Raspberry Fields is a masterpiece by El-P, and the lyrics on Stress Rap, a little further down the list, speak for themselves. Sadly, due to personal issues, Cannibal Ox never managed to release anything of this quality after The Cold Vein—nor did anyone else, really.
“Shook Ones, Pt II is the only ‘mainstream’ track on this list. It’s full of gangsta braggadocio, but still has an angsty feel to it.”
El-P’s Oh Hail No from his album Cancer 4 Cure comes closest to his work on The Cold Vein—a dark beat accompanied by even darker lyrics. Shook Ones, Pt II by Mobb Deep is the only “mainstream” track on this list. It’s full of gangsta braggadocio, but still has an angsty feel to it. Sage Francis is one of my favourite hip-hop artists of all time. His tracks all have a rough edge to them, and I find Sea Lion is a perfect example of his combination of lyricist, battle rapper and spoken word poet. Exhausted Love is an anti-work anthem by Eyedea, probably one of the best freestyle rappers in history, who sadly passed away in 2010. Cold Hearted, about painful childhood memories, is delivered expertly by Blu over a phenomenal beat by Exile.
Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without South London’s own Loyle Carner. Ain’t Nothing Changed tackles defeatism and ambitions over Piero Umiliani’s smooth jazz saxophone. Sea Legs by Run The Jewels is another banger produced by El-P—albeit remixed by TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek this time round. Danny Brown’s Grown Up is mostly a nostalgia trip, but his distinctive flow and voice make it sound slightly less sunny. The next track, Soft Atlas, by 13 & God (a combination of California’s Themselves and Germany’s Notwist) is a bit harder to define, but Dose One’s rapping definitely sounds weird and angsty.
The thirteenth track on this list, Aesop Rock’s The Greatest Pac-Man Victory in History, is off Bazooka Tooth. It’s the inspiration behind the aforementioned documentary. On this track Aesop Rock takes us on a psychedelic acid-induced trip, where on the second verse every word is sequenced L-S-D: “let sleeping dogs lie still/ don’t look so damn lackluster, suck defeat/ love some damage, load sample, delete.”