November 14, 2009
Canibus: Not Just a Rap Veteran
Since Veteran’s Day was last Wednesday, I thought that it would be a good time to give a little history lesson on Canibus, the only rapper I know to have served in the United States Armed Forces. In the ’90s, Canibus was the most anticipated rapper in the game. With his diverse vocabulary, and his gravely and aggressive tone, Canibus absolutely murdered every song he was featured on. One of my personal favorites was his verse on The Firm’s “Desperados”. Despite solid efforts from AZ and Nature, when Can rapped first, it really didn’t matter who came next. (Although, one can only wonder what it would have sounded like if Nas sacked up and rhymed on this track, rather than choosing it to be one of the only songs on the entire album on which he wouldn’t rap. But that was what Canibus did. He put fear into other incredible MCs. Look at this classic cypher with the once-in-a-lifetime lineup of Mos Def, DMX, Big Pun, John Forte, and Mic Geronimo. Rather than go second, which is where he sat in the cypher, Canibus proclaims that he deserves the right to anchor, and no one disagrees. On the one hand, this is testament to his talent. On the other, it is exactly this greater-than-thou mentality that led to the downfall of his career.
Most rap fans know and dislike Canibus from his beef with LL Cool J. In my opinion, the tracks by both artists were of a surprisingly high caliber. Each rapper perfectly pinpointed the faults of the other, and expressed it with true lyrical style. The problem was that regardless of what either MC wrote, there was no way for Canibus to win. LL is considered one of hip-hop’s true pioneers, and in 1997, at the time of the beef, he was loved by the hip-hop community as well as by corporate America. He had his own TV show, he was breaking into film, and he was finishing up his seventh full-length album. Not to mention that he was pretty much hip-hop’s only major sex symbol at the time. Then you take Canibus, an ugly, underweight, angry rapper who had yet to prove himself to the majority of the world. Sure, MTV might have covered the story as if it was a battle of equals, but there was no way that any of the powers that be in the music industry were going to allow their star to be beaten by an unknown rapper, with zero commercial appeal and a blatant drug reference for a name. So ever since their lyrical skirmish, LL’s career has continued pretty much unscathed, and Canibus has been labeled as the mad rapper that nobody wants to deal with.
Canibus went on to record a few albums, but due to mediocre production and a lack of diversity in subject matter, they didn’t go over well with fans. Combined with the complete lack of promotion from his record label, each release flopped worse than the previous one. Then in 2001, Canibus announced that he was going to join the US Army. Needless to say, this announcement spurred mixed reactions. Rarely do you hear of well-known musicians joining the armed forces at all, but especially not during a time of war. Some thought that it was a sign that he was defeated as a musician, others saw it as an honorable act, some went as far as to label it a media stunt, and many people were surprised that he still even existed in the world of popular culture. Personally, though I was against the war, I couldn’t hate on another man for putting his life on the line for this country. At the time, he attributed his decision as a reaction to attack on the World Trade Center. Yet, in 2005 he shined some more light onto the whole process. Apparently, he wanted to take a break from rap and define himself through another medium.
While most would assume that joining the army would take Canibus out of the dialogue of the hip-hop community, this wasn’t the case. In 2003 Canibus released his fifth, and most widely acclaimed album, Rip The Jacker. Surprisingly, at a point in his career where it seemed like he would never understand how to make a quality and cohesive project, everything about this album was an improvement. This is possibly because it’s the album Canibus had the least to do with. Rip The Jacker might be the only hip-hop album in existence where the lyrics were written and recorded before a single beat was chosen. Canibus was going to boot camp and didn’t have time to properly put the project together, so he sent his recorded acapellas to Stoupe The Enemy of Mankind, the producer of the Philadelphia based group, Jedi Mind Tricks. Much like a film composer, Stoupe put together a soundscape that not only fit perfectly with the art already given to him, but that actually heightened it’s meaning and value as well. Stoupe’s combination of dark and ominous samples mixed with traditional boom bap drums meshed perfectly with Canibus’s angry and introspective lyrics as well as with his top notch flow. Lyrically, Canibus didn’t disappoint either. He hit fans with his trademark, rock hard battle raps, combined with a vocabulary and vast body of references and cultural allusions unparalleled in rap. Yet he added some concept songs to his arsenal as well, which did a lot of aid to the overall flow of the album. Although I would have appreciated a song, or at least a verse, about his thoughts on the eve of going to boot camp, I can forgive this omission when I get to songs like “Poet Laureate II”, where Canibus saves his most impressive raps for a nonstop seven-minute verse, while Stoupe masterfully incorporates three different beats.
This album, combined with his time in the army, gave fans hope that things may start to actually go Canibus’s way, but tragically, it didn’t happen. In 2004 Canibus was discharged from the army for getting caught smoking weed on camera, (which I think is absolutely preposterous), and then released a string of albums whose pitiful production have left even diehard fans utterly disgusted. But a career is full of ups and downs, and it’s possible that we could be approaching another high point in the tale of Canibus. This year he released a group album with Keith Murray called The Undergods, that received solid acclaim, and rumors about the release of Rip The Jacker 2: Infinity are starting to brew. While he’s never made my list of top MCs, I will always admire Canibus for the way he expresses his thirst for knowledge through song. Not many people do that anymore.
by Matt Moretti