Bryan L. linked to an article called “Some Thoughts on the Defenestration of Canibus” this morning on Twitter. The article has a YouTube video embedded that is extremely painful to watch. In the video Canibus recites raps that he’s reading out of a notebook in what appears to be a battle. Those familiar with the artist and his former work will recognize pieces of his breakout song “Second Round KO” as well as other freestyles. What was so painful about the video is that Canibus used to be a confident lyricist who could recite 100 bars from memory without batting an eyelash. Sure, it was written, but who cares? Everyone’s not a great freestyle artist (in terms of coming off the top of their head).
I was 16 when I first heard Canibus. Any mixtape (and this was back when mixtapes actually featured more than one artist) that was worth anything that year had a verse from Canibus somewhere on it. He was all over the place in ’97; from DJ Clue tapes to Funk Master Flex’s show on Hot 97 to albums from top industry rappers like Common Sense, LL Cool J, and The Firm (Nas, AZ, Foxy Brown, & Nature). The thing that was so amazing, was that no matter who Canibus rhymed with, he outshined them all. Now if you’re not a fan of the genre you won’t know what that means, but to say that Canibus came off better than Nas, or AZ, or Redman, or Common is a huge statement.
Take for example the opening bars of his verse on “Desperados” from The Firm’s only (and severely underappreciated album); he said, “At a thousand degrees Celsius I make MCs melt / F*** my record label I appear courtesy of myself.” Now for rap fans whose sole reason for buying tapes (or CDs, which were catching on) rather than dubbing them was to read the album credits on the inside cover, that opening was mind blowing. Any time we’d see a featured rapper it would say, “[fill in the blank] appears courtesy of [fill in the blank] Records.” Canibus was asserting the kind of autonomy that modern rap was built on but by that point had started to fade.
But this is a guy who once referred to himself saying, “The MC so ill I got AIDS scared to catch me,” and also, “on the microphone I’m sicker than those who’ve Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes.” His AIDS punch lines were as abundant as they were priceless. Canibus had a way with manipulating words and making them rhyme when in reality they didn’t. I can’t recall another rapper who did this as well as Canibus up until that point. Of course, Eminem would arrive soon after, and do what Canibus did so well to the Nth degree. But I’m getting ahead of myself; more on that later.
But for as much as I loved Canibus on mixtapes and other people’s albums, I knew he couldn’t maintain such a furious pace for so long. All the signs of his gassing out were evident; to me at least. I went on record in 1997 plenty of times to plenty of people saying that Canibus was using up his best material on other people’s songs. I had no confidence that he’d produce a good album (a problem still prevalent in many of today’s mixtape rappers, e.g., Joell Ortiz). But I’m getting ahead of myself again; let me return to this in a moment. First let’s talk about the pinnacle of Canibus’ career.
As I mentioned above, he was featured on LL Cool J’s album Phenomenon on the remix to a song called “4, 3, 2, 1” that also featured Redman, Method Man, DMX, and Master P. The way the story goes is that Canibus had originally recorded a verse in which he made reference to borrowing the microphone off LL’s arm (referring to his tattoo). LL heard it and made him rewrite the verse because he felt disrespected. When the song was complete the world heard LL close the song out with a verse that went directly at Canibus and pulled no punches. He said, “The symbol on my arm is off limit to challengers / you hold the rusty sword I swing the Excalibur” after referring to Canibus as a “young son” and “little shorty” who wanted to “borrow his flows” but couldn’t because the “bank [was] closed.” Later he said, “Now let’s get back to this mic on my arm / If it ever left my side, it’d transform into a time bomb / You don’t wanna borrow that, you wanna idolize / and you don’t wanna make me mad, n***a you wanna socialize.” He made it very clear who his verse was intended for.
Well, this wasn’t the best move on LL’s part. At the time Canibus was hungry, as Mike Tyson would let us know in no uncertain terms in the introduction to Canibus’ response, “Second Round KO.” This song contained two short verses that went at LL from multiple angles. It remains to this day one of the hardest diss records of all time. He let the world know the truth about LL not wanting him to shine. And when Canibus was done it didn’t seem like there was anything LL could do to redeem himself. He would, of course, respond with a song called “The Ripper Strikes Back,” and although I didn’t care as much for this one on first listen as I did “Second Round KO,” upon further inspection it does appear that LL prevailed in the end. But most fans thought like I did initially giving the edge in the battle to Canibus.
But aside from appearing on seemingly every mixtape one came across from March to July of 1998, “Second Round KO” was the lead single to Canibus’ 1998 debut album Can-I-Bus. The problem was not only that this was the best song on the album; it was almost the only good song on the album! As I had predicted the previous year; Canibus had released a garbage freshman project. The production was laughable, and I suppose we can blame Wyclef for that (although Canibus had to pick those beats and work with them), but the wordplay seemed elementary compared to his features on other people’s projects. Canibus seemed almost depressed, which in turn made me, and I assume many others, depressed. And it was also a letdown that he recycled mixtape material and worked it into the album, and in a way that lessened its potency, not a way that enhanced it.
Critics criticized the album, as they should have, and Canibus never seemed quite able to recover. It just so happens that a year later Eminem would explode onto the scene. He seemingly appreciated Canibus, even dropping a couple of lines on his debut LP and some mixtapes that seemingly complimented the rapper (fans debate whether or not they were complimentary or intended to be disses). But some stuff happened behind the scenes before any of this where it had been believed that Eminem had written “The Ripper Strikes Back” for LL Cool J. He said he didn’t but the suspicion was always in the air. So after Eminem blew up and Canibus fizzled there was really nowhere for Canibus to go.
Canibus would go on to release several albums on which he overtly tried to promote feuds with the likes of Eminem and LL Cool J. They weren’t biting. It was a truly sad display to see someone so desperately trying to bring himself any kind of attention he could get, even if it was negative, and no one wanting to give him the time of day. The once confident lyricist now seemed a shell of his former self. He appeared more like the rapper we see in the video embedded in the abovementioned article. Eminem ignored him for years, dropping subliminal disses here and there, but when finally did go directly at him it was in a song that was obviously not meant to be taken seriously (he channeled Slick Rick in his delivery and the beat and hook were clearly comical).
By this point it was a wrap; Canibus’ career was effectively over; no matter how many more albums he would drop. He just didn’t have that thing that he had early in his career. The author of the abovementioned article thinks that perhaps Caibus lacked heart, or vulnerability. I don’t know that that’s it. He seemed about as vulnerable as anyone could on his third studio album C True Hollywood Stories, and it was a sad thing to witness. It seems to me that he lost his creativity; his hunger; and his confidence. It’s evidence to me that the mere ability to rhyme words is not the same thing as the ability to rap well. And as the author of the article rightly points out; there’s a marked difference a rapper like KRS One who can truly master a ceremony, and a rapper like Canibus can’t now, and never truly could.