Cannibal Ox's 2001 debut, The Cold Vein, helped establish El-P as one of rap's most revolutionary producers, and his fledgling Definitive Jux imprint as the heir apparent to Rawkus' underground hip-hop throne. With Look Mom… No Hands, Cannibal Ox star Vast Aire steps out of his group for a solo turn, but he's not exactly going it alone.
Though his debut is coming out through upstart Chocolate Industries, and while El-P is conspicuously missing from the long list of guest rappers and producers, a good chunk of Def Jux's roster does pop up, including S.A. Smash, RJD2, Aesop Rock, and Aire's Cannibal Ox partner, Vordul Megilah. Underground royalty and noted supervillain MF Doom turns in brilliant contributions as both a rapper and a producer, and the difference between him and Aire is telling. Aire and Doom share a thrilling air of unpredictability, a knack for turns of phrase, and a gift for coming at familiar subject matter from unexpected angles. But where Doom's deadpan delivery is the hip-hop equivalent of Buster Keaton's stone face, Aire's voice has a wild-man cartoon growl that belies his lyrical sophistication.
Aire's skill for making the familiar foreign is displayed most prominently on the chilly "Why'sdaskyblue?," which renders childhood nostalgia dark and unnerving. It's nostalgia stripped of comfort and safety, childhood as it might be glimpsed from the vantage point of a dystopian future. The Ayatollah-produced "Elixir" keeps the futuristic vibe going, with Aire and Sadat X rhyming over production that sounds like it should be played in a disco onboard the P-Funk mothership.
Aire turns to more contemporary matters on "9 Lashes (When Michael Smacks Lucifer)," where he hands Esoteric a vicious lyrical beatdown, though someone should really tell the whole Def Jux camp that their disses are the only reason most rap fans know about Esoteric in the first place.
A riveting combination of old school B-boy attitude and post-apocalyptic menace, Vast Aire's otherworldly debut finds the human core of El-P's chilly futurism. The head of Def Jux is absent from the credits, but his spirit and sound are well represented.