Saved by the Bell
In hip hop, partnerships are easily forged and quickly forgotten, but a dis lasts a lifetime. It was just such a dis, the slobbering "2nd Round K.O.", that first united underground MC Canibus and his best-selling producer/benefactor Wyclef Jean. The support of that celebrated Fugee ensured that Canibus's insult/assault on venerable hip-hop institution LL Cool J reached a much wider audience than would have seemed possible to the underground clubgoers who passed around Canibus mix tapes. Canibus's shrugged explanation at the time (the dis is just part of the hip-hop game) sounded disingenuous, and, in fact, his rhymes smacked of something far more personal.
Wyclef went on to produce his protègè's severely underrated debut, Can-I-Bus (Universal). Again, the MC's best lines were disses, a seemingly endless string of invective directed at the rap industry. But the partnership soon soured and Wyclef and Canibus parted ways. Suffering from a solid trouncing delivered by a rejuvenated LL on "The Ripper Strikes Back" and enduring scowling dismissals from hardcore heads that Wyclef's production was "soft," Canibus slunk back to his underground lair, licking his wounds.
Two years later, by some fluke of commerce and synchronicity, both Wyclef and Canibus have released records within the course of a few weeks. Both Canibus's 2000 B.C. (Before Can-I-Bus) (Universal) and Wyclef's The Ecleftic (2 Sides II A Book) (Columbia) struggle to emerge from beneath the history of their creators. Both continue to spotlight the dis as an MC's primary means of communication. Rather than rehash the putdowns of the past, however, Wyclef and Canibus now choose to hunt down new targets: each other.
Direct from the "underground with stalactites hangin' from the ceiling," Canibus lays into his former producer with the fury of the betrayed. "You mad at the last album?" he asks a crowd of hypothetical heads on his new disc's title track. "I apologize for it/Yo, I can't call it/Muthafuckin' Wyclef spoiled it." Most of Canibus's anti-Wyclef rhymes strain to absolve their creator of any responsibility for the release. Unlike LL, who was a remote, iconic figure, after all, Wyclef had been in Canibus's inner sanctum. On his second time out, Canibus makes sure that his house is in order.
Canibus achieves this reinvention sonically by jettisoning the soul samples and female backing vocals Wyclef employed on the debut. (So aggressively homophobic that he makes Eminem sound like a NAMBLA spokesman, Canibus most likely thought that letting women sing on his record was the work of "faggot niggas"--a phrase that pops up more than once.) In their place he delivers hard, military march beats, S.W.A.T.-theme loops, and stripped-down, Wu-inspired kung fu delirium.
The first track, "The C-Quel" kicks off with Bus tearing up the mic with different rhymes in each stereo channel. It's a great effect, as if Canibus has so much to say that his lyrics are exploding over themselves in the barrage.
Throughout, Canibus's disses are as caustic and oblique as ever, with the MC threatening to "put a voodoo verse on a nigga/Kennedy curse a nigga." He only tempers his rage to give props to a small coterie of inspirations, such as near-forgotten battle MC (and fellow LL victim) Kool Moe Dee, current world champion Jay-Z, and--well, I guess that's about it. For support, he reunites the Four Horsemen, a crew consisting of Kurupt, Rass Kass, and the Wu's Killah Priest. And he scrounges for credit by dueting with the esteemed Rakim, whom he not only sounds eerily like, but against whom he holds his own.
The similarities between Ra and Bus are not lost on Canibus's former benefactor. "A wannabe Rakim," sniffs Wyclef of his estranged protégé on "However You Want It," going on to dismiss Bus as "too extraterrestrial." The Ecleftic is peppered with similar choice jabs at Canibus. Where the younger MC overflows with hungry rage, Wyclef adopts a snidely patronizing tone. On "Where Fugees At," Clef shrugs, "Kid, stop lying to the public/You wanted it so bad you took all the production credits," atop a low, jazzy loop that showcases his surest stock in trade--beat-dragging, reggae-cadenced, syncopated rhymes.
In addition to its definitive book-closing on Canibus, "Where Fugees At" is also a necessary check-in to update the hordes of record execs, fans, and other MCs on the status of the next Fugees disc. As such, the song tries to have it both ways. With an uneasy mix of diplomacy and braggadocio, Wyclef boasts of his solo prowess in one line, then slides into the plaintive refrain, "Lauryn, if you're listening/Pras, if you're listening/Give me a call/I'm in the lab in the Booker basement."
Still, if Clef's got issues with people asking, "Where Fugees at?" the jumbled grab bag of his new associates isn't going to silence those requests. Granted, Clef's duet with the WWF's The Rock is the canniest fusion between pop music and pro wrestling since Captain Lou played Cyndi Lauper's dad on MTV. But I'd have pegged the Bloodhound Gang as much more likely to share the mic with e-z country croaker Kenny Rogers than Wyclef (who, after all, had already enlisted Dylan to cameo in his "Gone Til November" video). Clef's boast that "I'm about to break all formats" seems to lead him into the pursuit of eclefticism for its own sake.
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.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.