Sucka Punch

Canibus rhymes like a hip-hop Bartlett's


Following up a slew of legendary underground mix-tape appearances with a spate of high-profile, major-label cameos, Canibus was a perpetual up-and-comer who, for all his connections, might have languished in the respected semiobscurity so many gifted New York MCs take as their reward. But a fortuitous dis from LL Cool J gave the junior rapper the opportunity to land a sucker punch of a response-single on hip-hop radio's loose-lipped kisser. "Second Round K.O." was a categorical attack on LL's drug habits, TV show, and good looks. The ensuing battle could have served as the envy of any myth-mongering sportswriter from Long Island to Las Vegas--the hungry young upstart taking on a softened, yet reputable, elder.

Resurfacing on Can-I-Bus, "Second Round K.O." clearly comes across as a cultural moment rather than an indelible piece of music, an opportunity for grizzled old-schoolers to indulge in misty-eyed back-in-the-day dreams of an age when MCs didn't rely on their gat-strapped entourages to settle a beef. It's strictly welterweight, subpar by Canibus's generally high lyrical standards and marred by "faggot"-baiting. (Though if you're going to dis a rapper for biting your rhymes, who better to have in your corner than noted biting expert Mike Tyson, who lisps nonsensical encouragement between verses.)

But the rest of Can-I-Bus could fill a hip-hop Bartlett's: It's less interested in vocal prowess than broadly imaginative phrase-turning like "The only nine you got is a five and four ones." Canibus's ingenuity can outpace his logic--"I got so much speed I confuse Keanu Reeves" is like boasting you rock so hard you could beat down Joan Baez, and "I keep a library of rhymes on microfiche" like boasting that you record your beats on wax cylinders.

But such forgivable excesses of imagination also feed into the triumphantly loopy "Channel Zero," which theorizes that since God refers to Himself as plural in Genesis, humanity must have been created by a race of evil aliens who struck an unholy bargain with Harry Truman in exchange for the A-bomb. We await confirmation from Strange Universe.

Ludicrous as his conspiracy theories may be, Canibus can ground the bulk of his bullshit in lived experience. The brilliant "Niggonometry" rattles off ghetto word-problems like "You got a mansion, a Benz, a Bentley and a Range/And ain't none of that shit in your government name/What pieces of property do you really own?" And "What's Goin' On" calls for a moratorium on gunplay at rap shows. Above all, Canibus is a hip-hop pragmatist, and, more often than not, he keeps it real like my man John Dewey.

Unfortunately, "What's Goin' On" is also laced with the obligatory screed against "unclean women" whose rightful place is in the home--and, presumably, in the studio lending backup vocals, as they do on the lead single, "I Honor You," an R&B-flavored sop to the chick market. Like the bulk of hip-hop warriors, Canibus doesn't enjoy (or understand) sex all that well. So, after a hastily generalized knock on men who don't "honor" their women, he narrates his own conception, then takes a womb's-eye view of his mother's pregnancy. Empathy is not his strong suit: From his tone, you'd think embryonic lolling was rougher work than lugging a kid around in your middle for nine months. And before he's even born, he's whining for mom to move to the Bronx so he can start working on his rhyme skills.

But even "I Honor You" is saved (if not redeemed) by its easy-rolling lite-funk bottom. What hampered "Second Round K.O." most severely, after all, was the hands-off production of Canibus's chief ally, Wyclef Jean. Canibus doesn't flow, he spews, like Ghostface Killah on a perpetual wilding jag. He brawls rather than jabs, and, for all his ingenuity, he can flirt with monotony. Yet, to insist--as beat-wise connoisseurs already have--that collaboration with an abler stable of DJs than Wyclef assembles here might drive Canibus to the next level is to underestimate the man's utter lack of interest in beats. He rhymes aloofly, staying distant from the mix, setting the rhythm with his rap, and allowing the music to provide the mood.

Stranded among low-end NYC beat mechanics who don't know the difference between stripped-down and bare-assed, he would have remained a voice barking in the mix-tape wilderness. Expanding RZA-derived music with symphony-hall dynamics or using a tinny guitar to signify "rock," Can-I-Bus recalls the days when hip hop would try any trick to get heard, with a brightness that allows accessibility without kowtowing to the dread "pop"-hop trend or settling for the easy loop. There's more wit in the sampled Muppet-delivered alphabet lesson that's rearranged to spell out "F-U-C-K-L-L" than in all the collected 7-inches of, say, Company Flow.

Underground buzz can be as demanding on a young MC as a major-label blitz, though, and with expectations from both camps running high, there's something on Can-I-Bus to disappoint everyone in the crowd. But his musical helpmates have served him well, and if he needs to hone his skills any further, maybe he could duet with another legendary sparring partner. I hear Kool Moe Dee has some time on his hands.

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