I’ll make you question any and everything you’ve ever believed in–Lost Boyz f / Canibus, “Beast From the East”
Words. It’s all about the words with Canibus. We could fill the page top to bottom with quotes from Germaine Williams, a/k/a The Guy Who Got Into It With LL, The Guy Who Put Out an Album’s Worth of Guest Appearances Before His Own Album Came Out. Or as he says, “the illest MC you’ve ever seen in your fucking life,” but that’s probably pushing it. Just the hardest working.
The Canibus is an animal with a mechanical mandible coming to damage you / Spitting understandable slang at you–Common f / Canibus, “Making a Name for Ourselves”
Born near Kingston, Jamaica, to a cricket player and a radiologist 23 years ago, raised in Jamaica, London, New York, D.C., and Atlanta, and currently a resident of Jersey City, Canibus says he’s been writing rhymes since the age of 8. It sounds plausible. Great MCs like Method Man, Erick Sermon, Common, Snoop–they all eventually take a break and drop a few lines of flip the script, style is buck wild, I’ll get in that ass, you know my stee filler. Not Canibus. Perspiration is his only chance. He can’t charm, bark, lisp, or stutter his way out of a bind, so he brings a binder, crammed with lyric after well-edited lyric.
My balance enables me to square dance in a circle–Wyclef f / Canibus,”No Airplay”
Even though DMX recycles thug life themes and only has four beats to match his delivery, he creates more drama and dynamic shape than Canibus; Jay-Z’s liquid conversation has more bends and dips than Canibus’s monorail rant; and Big Pun brings all those good offbeats and clavé patterns that Canibus lacks. And since Wyclef keeps making the comparison, where does Canibus place in comparison to Rakim’s river-deep epigrams? Well, that’s some Babe Ruth stuff, but Canibus is no Mark McGwire. He’s a Don Mattingly–stern, quick, dependable, his genius his consistency.
I’ll strip you naked and make you hug a cactus, you bastard–Common f / Canibus, “Making a Name for Ourselves”
If you break most MCs down line by line, take away the edge of performance, Canibus shoots way up there. You can lean on a Canibus rhyme, put it on repeat play, and follow how it builds up; he’s not waiting for inspiration, or voodoo, or an agenda to do his thing. And his thing is battle rhymes, lots of them, and if that doesn’t exactly bring the shock of the new, well, he’s darn good at it. But what makes his debut album Can-I-Bus work, despite its flaws, is Canibus’s ability to choose subject matter beyond rapping itself and thugism, which helps make hip-hop look less like a formalized practice like curling or polka. Most songs ride a concept, like the all-too-welcome criticism of gun culture within hip-hop on “What’s Going On,” the X-Files conspiracy theories of “Channel Zero,” or the street math of “Nigganometry.” Sometimes, he falls flat–“Patriots” is a tune about his crew, the Navy Seals, eek, complete with some guy barking “At ease!”–but concepts make good places to put down all those put-downs.
If you sign a recording deal for less than quarter mil / and your advance is a $100,000 automobile/I know the vehicle is probably beautiful / but did you ask your lawyer if it was recoupable? –“Nigganometry”
Canibus’s stereotypically male lack of affect undermines his bid for greatness. Just check “I Honor U,” a sci-fi shout-out to respect between men and women that morphs into a love song to his mother. Canibus pictures himself as a sperm swimming “towards the border,” becoming his own fetus self, watching his mother and an abusive father who won’t stop smoking even though Canibus is germinating. It gets good, almost moving, but then Canibus says to Mom, “I can’t hold you in my arms because they’re not developed yet” and you wonder if Canibus isn’t some Vulcan who just read about the whole mother-son thing somewhere.
I’ll rip you, hit you with metaphorical content that will split you into little, powder-like crystals so I can sniff you –“How We Roll”
Whatever Can-I-Bus ends up meaning, it’s hard to imagine its author fading away.Just make yourself a mix of guest shots, freestyles from DJ Clue and Tony Touch mix tapes, and good CD tracks and you’ll have the Canibus album you want. Other than the mix-tape appearances, all the songs quoted here are easy to find. Or look for the DMX vs. Canibus bootleg CD on Canal Street. I’m already thinking about what he’ll do on the next record. Hopefully, first, he’ll say “Thanks, Clef, really, for putting me on, but I kinda gotta get some beats,” because what really hobbles Can-I-Bus is the goddamn soft-serve music from somebody else’s album. Canibus is a street-corner lecturer, anxious and cranky, and his beats need to harangue and jolt as much as he does. They do on “How We Roll,” his finest moment to date. Producer Clark Kent takes an MFSB sample and plays it at one speed, thinks twice, and speeds it up, mimicking Canibus’s Ritalin rhyme jitters. Canibus comes with one weird, vicious battle rhyme after another, leading you by the nose till you’re over the canyon on a high wire, hoping he won’t make you look down.
Every 3000 styles, I change my voice box’s oil–Wyclef f / Canibus, “No Airplay”
Wyclef and his associate Jerry Wonder mostly meet Canibus with misplaced, organic funk grooves left over from Erykah Badu demos. (Surprising, considering how tense and funky Jean’s beats are for Big Pun’s “Caribbean Connection” and his own LL comeback, “What’s Clef.”) “I Honor U” could have really hit home by avoiding the hip-hop axiom that songs about women must have smoove sonics, unless they’re about bitches and chickenheads, in which case you can be funky.
So fly, I need a passport just to walk–Heltah Skeltah f / Canibus and Ras Kass, “Uni4orm”
There are glimpses of a happier fusion: Longtime Fugee paramedic Salaam Remi drops a suitably dusted Hawaiian guitar sample on “Get Retarded” and L.G. outfits “Nigganometry” and “What’s Going On” with dusty, if somewhat low-key, ’70s funk from the crates. But overall, the mood of the tracks would suit someone more terrestrial and friendly than Canibus. What Canibus wants is what hip-hop provides so reliably: brightly colored, hydraulic rhythms that feel like human rhythms except bigger, more squeaky, both more artificial and more powerful. Because Canibus knows about more.
There ain’t a microphone brave enough to give me feedback –“Buckingham”
Enigma status may end up earning Canibus his place in history. He’s relentlessly grim and serious yet he says some of the funniest shit you’ve heard all year; he trucks in weird subject matter but has a clear delivery; and he’s ghettocentric enough to write “Nigganometry” but school-friendly enough to do it using examples that would please any high-school science teacher. That means, like Q Tip, Slick Rick, and Biz Markie, Canibus sounds neither under- nor overground–just very much like himself and not particularly interested in making friends. If he boots up his heart and gets some beats from Premier for the next album, duck.
If you John Blaze, or you James Flames, or you Jack Cremation, I’m Germaine Propane –“Let’s Ride”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 15, 1998