Unearthed Canibus Freestyle Reminds Us How Great He Could Have Been

Canibus' failure as a commercial artist can be traced back to three key things.
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Canibus' failure as a commercial artist can be traced back to three key things.

Tim Westwood sent hardcore hip-hop fans into a tizzy this week when he unearthed and released a 10-minute freestyle from Wyclef and Canibus from 1998. Over the course of the freestyle, 'Clef and Canibus spit wicked off the dome rhymes over some classic beats, most notably Raekwon's "Ice Cream." Wyclef is no slouch on this but it's Canibus who delivers punishing blows:

"Uncle Sam wants you but he don't want me 'cause lyrically I'm too advanced for you average MC's/with the forces, bigger than 20 golf courses/eerie like government theories behind flying saucers/I go on and on and on for hours til batteries die then I switch to auxiliary power..."

This piece of hip-hop history, hidden until now, immediately reminded me of what could have been with Canibus. There was a time in 1997, when Canibus was poised to be hip-hop's next superstar. His appearance on LL Cool J's "4,3,2,1" ignited a battle with LL that would result in Canibus releasing "Second Round K.O.", an LL diss track that became an accidental mainstream hit, setting up Canibus' debut album, Can-I-Bus. That album was supposed to be the project that cemented him as rap's new superstar prodigy - only it didn't. The album was eventually certified Gold, a disappointment during an era where platinum albums were the minimum for a truly popular rapper, and more importantly, both fans and critics largely weren't impressed.

The criticism of Can-I-Bus being overproduced is fair, however, to dismiss it as a poor debut album is greatly misguided. There are some incredible moments on the album, including the single "I Honor U," where Canibus raps from the perspective of being inside his mother's womb, along with additional standouts like "How We Roll," "Patriots," "Get Retarded" and "Niggonometry."

So what happened? How did a rapper seemingly poised to hit the stratosphere fail to truly take flight? The failure of Canibus as a commercial success can be traced back to three key things:

The LL Diss

Launching your career by dissing a hip-hop legend is a weight that you carry forever. LL Cool J was already an established rap and entertainment legend when Canibus decided to "rip the mic from his arm." And while "Second Round K.O." put Canibus on the map and gave him the kind of publicity money can't buy leading into his debut, he could never shake the battle, especially when LL Cool J responded on "The Ripper Strikes Back" and said, "99 percent of your fans don't exist" - you could hear the collective "ohhhhs" the rap world over. As it turns out, LL was right and almost as quick as he came, Canibus began to fade following LL's response. In a way that diss was like a big radio single early in a rapper's career - it can put you on the map, but it can also become hard to escape from. 

Attacks on Wyclef, Eminem & More

Instead of leaving the disses behind and refocusing his music career for his second album, Canibus continued to make misguided decisions including dissing Wyclef about the poor critical response to his debut album. On the title track to his sophomore album, 2000 B.C., 'Bis pinned the lukewarm response to Can-I-Bus squarely on the Fugees member:

"You mad at the last album? I apologize for it / Yo, I can't call it, motherfucking Wyclef spoiled it!"

Wyclef aside, "2000 B.C." performed even more poorly than his debut and Canibus was unceremoniously dropped from Universal Records following its release. But it didn't end there. Oh no. Who can forget (or wants to remember) Canibus going after Eminem? It allegedly started when Canibus perceived an Eminem lyric on Slim Shady LP track "Role Model" as a diss:

"I'm cancerous, so when I diss you wouldn't wanna answer this/if you responded back with a battle Rap you wrote for Canibus."

What followed over the years was a series of awkward diss tracks from Canibus aimed at Eminem (who also jabbed at the rapper on many of his albums), who retaliated with "Canibitch" and promptly stomped on Canibus' grave with lines like:

"There was a little rapper about to blow / But his album came, and it was not good / I think it went lead or double copper-wood"

Is it possible Canibus thought lightning would strike twice (or three times?) and he could simply ride the diss wave to another Gold-certified album? Whatever the reason, this was a poor long-term strategy for the emcee.

Too Good For His Own Good?

Canibus was simply too good of a rapper for his own good. With his gravely-voiced flow and penchant for using words like "encephalograph" in his rhymes, 'Bis's bars many times flew over the average hip-hop fans head and bordered on, as Eminem would say, using too many complicated f*ckin' words for ya. While many of the productions on his debut album provided a canvas for commercial singles, Canibus had trouble adjusting his flows and understanding he was making a song rather than trying to eat, eat, eat, eat emcees.

On "Second Round K.O." Canibus says, "I'ma let the world know the truth, you don't want me to shine." Is it true? Did LL Cool J and the broader hip-hop industry not want Canibus to shine? Were they worried that this new Jack's skill level was simply too strong and they cut him off at the knees before he could actually get going? Or was it Canibus himself who made many poor decisions along the way that resulted in him falling into almost complete obscurity? Years after his debut, Canibus was still shooting himself in the foot on occasion, such as his much hyped "return" in a battle against Dizaster where 'Bis promptly pulled out a notepad to spit his rhymes. 

Regardless of the answer, there is no denying that Canibus has had one hell of career at least from an output perspective, releasing more than 15 solo or collaborative albums over a nearly 20 year career. A special emcee whose time in the mainstream spotlight was much too short, his legacy is one most rappers would die for. But still, it's hard not to listen to that early freestyle and wonder just how big he could have been. 

By @brokencool, native Torontonian

Photo Credit: Soundcloud