Saved by the Bell

Former hip-hop collaborators Wyclef Jean and Canibus battle their personal demons--and each other

Then again, the crunchy guitar Clef runs underneath Kenny's chorus to "The Gambler" is, admittedly, pretty funky. Elsewhere, pairings with Mary J. Blige, Earth Wind & Fire, and Whitney Houston acknowledge Wyclef's more credible place in a diverse musical landscape. Blige's maximum-soul performance on "911" is the closest the listener may get to asking "Lauryn who?" but it may also point up the fact that Wyclef often shines brightest when someone strong has got his back.

Or when he's on the attack. Canibus is only one of Clef's casualties. Wyclef next turns to New Orleans rapper Juvenile in "Thug Angels." The amped-up, wiry beats under the scathing rhymes send up Juvenile's style as bitingly as the putdowns themselves: "You used to sell crack on the hill? Uh/Yeah, right, my name's Elvis and your wife is Priscilla." Cunning enough to anticipate attacks from so-called underground rappers because he's "above-ground/Counting English pounds," Clef comes out swinging first. The Ecleftic's many incisive moments herald Wyclef as a hip-hop survivor who has been abandoned, dissed, and dismissed, but who will still admit in the end, via a soulful Pink Floyd update, "I wish you were here."

For former partners turned enemies, Wyclef and Canibus share a surprisingly similar worldview. Whether it's Clef's pleas for a Fugees reunion or his willingness to let Mary J. Blige steal the show, or Canibus's palpable excitement to reconvene the Four Horsemen, both rappers realize that a dis can get you only so much attention. When the heat of the battle is over, even the snarliest MC needs an ally to depend upon.

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