November 24, 2009

Reader Review: Canibus - Can-I-Bus (September 8, 1998)

(For today's write-up, Jason has decided to provide another perspective on the debut album from Canibus, creatively titled Can-I-Bus. Longtime readers may remember that I felt this project deserved nothing more than a Drink Coaster review, so for those of you who were waiting on a track-by-track commentary, today's your lucky day.)

Like a lot of kids in 1998, I bought Can-I-Bus, the debut album from Canibus, the day it dropped. I had spent months following every guest spot and mixtape verse I could get my hands on. This was before albums leaked to the Internet and before every rapper dropped (at least) six mixtapes full of material before getting their record deal. This was back when an album release felt like an event (and took an act of God).

Canibus was my favorite rapper at the time, and that was based on nothing more than a handful of verses. Why? Because his dick was like planet Earth: everybody was on it. Because he ambushed MCs like Vietnamese in fatigues covered in leaves. Because if you were number one, he was negative two; that means he’s still better than you. (I have to admit, that last boast doesn't really make sense, but I'm not a math major, so maybe I'm missing something.) Canibus would consistently make me angry whenever he spit his verses, because I didn’t come up with his punchlines first. Nobody could tell me that LL Cool J got the best of him, either. Nobody.

So I was ecstatic when I paid my fifteen dollars for Can-I-Bus that September afternoon. I threw it into my Discman and listened to it front to back, twice, without interruptions.

And like most other kids who swore Canibus was their favorite rapper in 1998, I was disappointed.

It wasn’t what I had expected. I wanted twelve consecutive “Second Round K.O.”'s, but instead, I received several tracks about aliens and verses written from the perspective of sperm. The production also seemed to contradict the aggressive nature of Germaine Williams: if he appeared angry, the beats came off as whimsical.

I would argue in defense of Can-I-Bus with my friends, but I was lying to myself also. I needed to admit it: I had expected a classic, but didn’t receive it.

Years passed. My devotion to hip-hop remained, but my interest in Canibus (understandably) waned. Sure, I bought his sophomore joint, 2000 B.C. (Before Can-I-Bus), and even picked up that inexcusable C! True Hollywood Stories album, but I never named Germaine among my favorite rappers again. Instead, he became a cautionary tale. For example, whenever somebody talks about Papoose, Saigon, Joell Ortiz, or some other mixtape “maestro”, I mumble, “Wait for the album.” (This is actually really good advice for any hip hip fan.)

Then, a few years ago, I returned to Can-I-Bus. I needed something to listen to while running, and my hand stopped on its jewel case. And once again, Canibus surprised me—but this time the surprise was a welcome one. His punchlines were as vicious as I remembered, but amidst the lyrical slaughter, I discovered well-written songs about actual topics. The production, while still subdued, was also better than I remembered.

Perhaps the problem with Can-I-Bus wasn’t lackluster production or the lack of lyrical variety. Maybe it was my own heightened expectations.

I’m not sure what the point of this intro was. This does nothing to build anticipation for the coming album. Hence, this obligatory rap album intro is a failure.

“I make your bitch crew shit stools / I put a pistol in your mouth and pull / Then I feed you to the pitbulls.” Now, this is more like it. Canibus spits like his record deal is on the line: he warns you that he can kill anything if it bleeds or breathes, and reminds you that his “rhyme method” is like a medieval torture method. A verse from Free (of BET's 106 & Park fame) can't even derail this train.

This song suffers from a disconnect between production and lyrical content. Salaam Remi’s beat is trippy—perfect for, say, Q-Tip to spaz out over—but Canibus is spitting that battle shit, and consequently, the lyrics are good, the beat is fine, but the song is less than the sum of its parts. (I happen to like this song, but I can agree with this argument, as well.) The responsibility for that ultimately falls on the MC: Canibus could have written something more appropriate for the musical accompaniment. However, there is a remix to this track on Sway and King Tech’s album This or That that is far superior. The lyrics remain unchanged, but the musical backing is a much better match. You should hunt it down. It’s only one verse long, but it reveals the potential Canibus has when his lyrics and production are better paired.

The two most common criticisms of Canibus are as follows: (1) He selects beats that he is not best suited for, and (2) he can only write hot verses, not coherent songs. “N---onometry” is evidence to the contrary. Canibus gives a pointed critique of the music industry and of those who flash money they don’t truly have. He acts as an advocate for common sense in a genre that eschews it. (That's actually a really good way of putting it.) And the LL Cool J potshot at the end? Completely unnecessary, and detrimental to his overall point.

How much do I need to say? This is an eviscerating dis track, a throat punch, a kill shot. More importantly, this is a very good song. Even if a listener were unaware of Canibus and LL Cool J’s history, they could still enjoy the track off of the strength of the plucked bass line, ominous choir, sharp punchlines and menacing delivery. The lone flaw in the song: Germaine's boast that LL couldn't “eat a n---a ass like me” line. Awkward.

Another example of the underrated songwriting ability of our host. Canibus warns listeners about the dangers of gun violence over a Bobby Womack-laced beat. “Believe or not, the government wants that / So they can use it as an excuse to shut down rap.” This song doesn’t have the sharpest punchlines, nor the most bracing production, but it’s still the best song on Can-I-Bus.

Canibus is a weird dude, no question. The “Dear Mama”-type song was already a common trope in hip hop by 1998. So how does Canibus add his own twist? He raps from the prenatal perspective—first as spermatozoa, then as a fetus. Does it work? No, not really. The artifice distracts from his point. Who cares what he was thinking about as a sperm? He’s supposed to be talking about his mother. It's too bad, because the production on here is fantastic, and the chorus (sung by MB2) is genuinely touching.

The good: an insightful update of Biz Markie's “Vapors”. A lot of rappers talk about the unwanted attention they suddenly received when they became famous, but few have written about is as thoughtfully as Canibus. The bad: a boring and oft-repeated chorus. This song also has an odd structure: four eight-bar verses separated by an eight-bar chorus. Consequently, this song spends just as much time on the hook as it does the verses, which is ultimately the song’s downfall, because the hook is static. It’s not engaging and never varies, despite the amount of times it is repeated.

Pick a quotable, any quotable. “I’m barbaric with the alpha-numeric / With the type of lyrics that separate your body from your spirit…We’re savages, snatching microphones from amateurs / Because, like women who have abortions, I ain’t having it...Comin’ after ya / Blastin’ ya / With the shotgun like a front-seat passenger.” Canibus teaches a doctorate-level course on punchline writing and delivery over a DJ Clark Kent beat. He even bothers to write an acceptable hook, which many of his contemporaries tend to ignore.

Canibus is either the nerdiest hardcore rapper or the hardest nerdcore rapper I’ve ever heard. This song is pretty much a rant on Roswell. It’s well-written, the beat is dope and it’s nice to hear Mr. Cheeks (of the Lost Boyz) return the favor from “Beasts from the East” (Canibus was also slitting his time between the Refugee Camp and the Lost Boyz crew around this time in his career), but the unusual subject matter is self-destructing.

“Let’s Ride” suffers from the same musical disconnect as “Get Retarded.” A Kid Called Roots lays down a smooth beat over which Canibus could have spit some simplistic pimp shit. Instead, Canibus decides to rip it to shreds. Even more disconcerting, Wyclef and Product still sing a smooth hook as if Canibus was not just spitting flames. But the difference between “Get Retarded” and “Let’s Ride” is that “Let’s Ride” is so good the disconnect doesn't matter.

This song is composed of random verses over a serviceable Wyclef and Jerry Wonder-produced tack. Whether or not you like this song depends on how much you enjoy random Canibus verses. I happen to like them, but your mileage may vary.

Wyclef Jean has become a master of fusing genres. He can combine a Black Eyed Peas-influenced trifle with a Soca workout, Chamillionaire with Bollywood, and Paul Simon with hip-hop. However, this rock-rap mixture fails, partly because the guitar riff is a cliché and Canibus is far too aware of the “experimental” nature of the song.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Can-I-Bus is not an unqualified success. It has some incredible moments and some interesting failures. Canibus did not release this album as a fully formed artist. Instead, he was an artist with extraordinary potential. However, that potential never came to fruition, partly because of the enormous expectations placed on his shoulders. After this release, Canibus made an album, 2000 B.C. (Before Can-I-Bus) that was supposed to be exactly what people wanted from him: fourteen tracks of spitting fire and battling the universe. Which might have sounded like a good idea at the time, but it was very monotonous in practice. Ultimately, Canibus became a caricature of himself—spitting one hundred-bar verses without a thought to convention or to the craft of songwriting. One can’t help but wonder what Canibus might have matured into had he recognized the need for his own artistic growth.

BUY OR BURN? That’s a tough one. Despite my sentimental preference for this album, I recognize it won't be for everyone. I’d recommend a burn, but some of you may feel compelled to purchase it after listening.

BEST TRACKS: “Second Round K.O.”; “What’s Going On”; “How We Roll”; “Let’s Ride”


(Be sure to leave your questions, comments, and concerns below. And for the sake of comparison, here is the link to my original review.)


  1. I think 2nd Round K.O. and Cool J's return diss were about equally good

  2. I can definitely agree with that last statement. Canibus is one of the biggest what-ifs in the history of hip-hop, and I feel he could easily have had DMX's spot, but it seems like he views the beat as almost unnecessary.

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  4. I wonder if anyone who gave up on Canibus after C! ever listened to Rip The Jacker. Sure, it didn't make a splash on the billboard but it is (to me) the ultimate Canibus record, with different song concepts that still has the razor sharp lyrical touch and beats that fits him like a glove. You should give it a try, it is a really good album.

  5. i think ll cool j and canibus suck (rip the jacker excluded)

    but i think we can all agree here that ll's "99% of your fans don't exist line" made canibus look like an idiot and won him the beef

  6. also, what's with the mf doom reviews but no mf grimm reviews? what's your problem, max, i thought you supported good music? anyone with half a brain could tell you that scars and memories >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> everything doom has ever or will ever do in his entire life and career

  7. "Because his dick was like planet Earth: everybody was on it."

    This made me laugh, HARD. Good show (and the rest of the review was pretty good too)

  8. Question Max: Do you ever review underground albums like from real underground artists.. I'd like to see one from Papoose, maybe joell ortiz.. or even mixtapes? One mixtape i highly recommend u check out and i promise its worth your time.. there's this artist name XV out of Kansas and he came out with a mixtape called "Everybody's Nobody" check it out, if u like it, u should review it, anyway keep up the reviews!

  9. AnonymousJune 14, 2011

    The "Channel Zero" song's main focal point was not about Roswell. If you're basing that off the introduction alone, then you obviously didn't listen to the song. It's talking about the Grand Deception and of intelligent life forms possibly inhabiting this planet before Homo Sapiens. But I don't want to rant on; pretty good review.

  10. good review , my taste differ a bit from yours but still it was a good honest, unbiased review not like that asshole Max's trolling/hating-ass reviews.