Canibus last made the headlines when he pulled out a notepad full of rhymes in a pay-per-view rap battle in clear defiance of the unwritten code of freestyling. He forfeited his matchup against L.A.-based emcee Dizaster and then proceeded to recite his writtens to an incredulous audience of fans and peers. This is strange not only because Canibus became famous for his battle-style delivery and content, but because rarely do we see such a stroke of desperation from a rapper whose debut album went gold.
In an effort to discern how Canibus went from promising battle rapper to miserable television rapper, we go back fifteen years to Bis’ first album. Feel free to listen along with the review and leave your own opinions in the comment section below.
Right away, Bis’ beat selection is noticeable, as “Get Retarded” and “Nigganometry” feature Hip Hop’s interpretation of easy listening courtesy of Salaam Remi and Jerry Wonda. His flow is polished and easy to follow despite his conspiratorial musings on the tail end of “Nigganometry” where he implies that the world is not three-quarters water. Perhaps it’s his defiance of science without any obvious irony that makes his music enjoyable, but make no mistake, the experience of listening to Can-I-Bus is much more admiring his rhymes than laughing at his views. The spelling from the latter song leads into his LL Cool J diss featuring Canibus at his best.
Bis at his best, by the way, is calling out the fallacious behaviors of his peers. He makes it very clear that he sees you when you’re fucking around and he knows when you’re fronting. He is peaceful and rational by anybody’s standards on “What’s Going On?” as he pleas for gun-toters to leave the piece at home and enjoy the nightly functions. Canibus speaks for the rare silent majority of hip-hop listeners who do not carry guns and questions the logic of concealed firearms in a surprisingly poignant and heartfelt message. Honestly, if you hadn’t heard of him before pressing play on the album, you might swear that you were listening to two different rappers on the last two songs.
The beat on “I Honor U” is a sludgy mess, conjuring up feelings of sitting in smoggy traffic with a driver who doesn’t make eye contact with you. Wyclef Jean’s fingerprints are all over this song, from the hook to the beat, to the effect that this beat is as out of place here as “The Day You’re Mine” was on Long Live the Kane. Meanwhile, Canibus perseveres by echoing 2Pac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” and forshadowing TiRon’s “Boys & Girls,” all of which are tales of relationships gone wrong with a focus on a female perspective. This might seem like an obvious angle to cover, but hip-hop has never been on the forefront of the feminism movement and hearing it is like watching Kobe lead the league in assists.
Canibus continues to rhyme over the same beats that gave Lauryn Hill headaches while paying respect to Biz Markie, one of Hip Hop’s beloved elder statesmen. As a point of fact, I think the beats range from “nice” to “not terrible” but I understand why the flowery nature of beats like “Hypenitus” might make hardcore Hip Hop purists wretch and instinctively reach for their trusty copy of 36 Chambers. “How We Roll” hints at a hard-hitting beat that will allow Canibus to launch barrages at his detractors, and after a nervous prelude, Clark Kent finally coaxes a sample into a proper boom-bap. This is archetypal Canibus, this is that shit you throw on when you want to convince somebody that Canibus who freestyles while squinting at a pad and paper isn’t the only Canibus. “How We Roll” manages to capture his essence despite the presence of Panama P.I., whom it is impossible to talk about without the words, “He sounds like Busta Rhymes without the characteristic energy.”
Conspiracy Canibus returns on “Channel Zero,” where he investigates the nature of MJ-12, a program designed to investigate UFOs – specifically “the grays” according to Bis. He sounds like Last Emperor on “Echo Leader,” but again, there is no hint of joking. This left me wishing that Bis would do an album about FEMA camps, drones and 9/11, mostly because when he’s rapping about the esoteric and possibly real, he sounds like a machine, every syllable spat out like gravel from twin spinning tires. Again, on “Let’s Ride,” he survives a weak beat and raps extremely well. It’s mind-boggling, almost, how he manages to carry track after track with little to no help from the beats, none of which are extraordinary. As a listener who is accustomed to listening from something special instrumentally as an initial indicator of excellence, I can feel my focus shifting from snares and samples to bars first and foremost.
By this time, my newfound respect for Canibus is firmly established, although I find myself in a weird grey area of appreciating his skill while not particularly liking any of his songs. That’s not to say his songs are bad, because as I’ve said, he’s rapping his ass off, but the beats prevent these tracks from being library staples and instead restrict them to people who really like listening to Canibus. One song I feel most will be able to agree on is “Buckingham Palace,” a sort of magnum opus for Bis. It’s as if he saved up the highlights from his writing sessions and stapled them together over a moody sort of beat, a jittery drum pattern underscored by a string or clarinet moaning. Can you imagine if he got Premo or Pete Rock to do the beat on this? We might be comparing him to rappers other than Dizaster if his songs had the listenability of a Guru or a Big L.