Welcome back to the latest edition of Flashback Friday Flop, a weekly feature in which I examine a hip-hop album from years ago that was considered a flop, either critically or commercially or both, when it was released and see if it has gotten better – or worse – over time.
This week: Canibus’s Can-I-Bus (1998)
Towards the end of 1997, hip-hop was entering a transition phase, digging itself out of the rubble left behind in the wake of the East Coast-West Coast war that altered the genre forever. The deaths of 2Pac and B.I.G., Snoop’s decline, and the dominance of Puff’s shiny suit army left an opening for new artists.
Into the void stepped a number of hungry young MC’s, each with their own set of skills. One of the most anticipated was Canibus, a lyrical phenomenon that became the most feared rapper from his mind-blowing features on The Lost Boyz’ “Beasts from the East” (for which he was honored with The Source‘s “Hip Hop Quotable of the Month”), LL Cool J’s “4, 3, 2, 1,” The Firm’s “Desparados,” and many more. Fans waited breathlessly for the album, expecting it to be a mixture of Rakim and 2Pac, lyrical gymnastics delivered with a fiery flow. The first single, “2nd Round K.O.,” a brutal attack on LL over an atmospheric beat, only heightened expectations.
When Can-I-Bus finally arrived in September, 1998, it was a total flop, one of the most disappointing albums in rap history. It came out at the start of my freshman year and we listened to it a lot (back then, when you bought an album you were invested), but it could never overcome all of its flaws. Two years later, ‘Bis would try to make up for it with 2000 B.C. (Before Can-I-Bus), but the damage had been done.
Has the passage of time been kind to the project? Now that we know what Canibus is and is not, can the album be appreciated simply for what it is?
Let’s get this out of the way: lyrically, the album lives up to the expectations. All of the mic-ripping skills that made him the hottest prospect in the game are on display. A list of all of the great lines would be longer than Scottie Pippen’s arms so here’s just a sample: “They act so chicken, they should come with a large drink and a biscuit.”
Many people may not remember, but there are some good songs here. The first track, “Patriots,” featuring a pre-106 & Park Free, has many quotable lines; “2nd Round K.O.” is an all-time great diss record; “Buckingham Palace” (although I prefer the hook on the original version) is a clinic in straight spitting; and the Clark Kent-produced “How We Roll” wonderfully combines Canibus’s rhymes with an excellent beat.
Still, there are only but so many ways to announce your superiority on the mic and that does not make for a full album and it’s when ‘Bis tries to touch on deeper subjects that he flounders. “I Honor U,” an ode to his mother, is an admirable idea in which he speaks from the perspective as a semen then a fetus, but it only scratches the surface. Still, it’s not terrible. “N—onometry” is a great concept that he wastes with stupid pieces of conspiracy theory trivia. “What’s Going On?” attempts to interpolate the Marvin Gaye classic of the same name and speak on the connection between hip-hop and violence, but Canibus sounds lifeless, providing no emotion to the track. “Channel Zero” is all about aliens and the U.S. government’s cover-up at Roswell. Extra-terrestrials are one of his favorite subjects and you can tell he’s excited to rhyme about it, but that doesn’t make it any less stupid. Finally, “Rip Rock” was a blend of rap and rock. Canibus is onto something here, as the subgenre would become very popular in the coming years. Unfortunately, the song is impossible to sit through.
When the album failed, many said the beats were to blame. On his second album, Canibus famously said, “You mad at the last album, I apologize for it/Yo, I can’t call it, motherfuckin’ Wyclef spoiled it.” But Canibus himself is listed as a co-producer on every track but one – and that’s the best song on the disc.
The songs that are bad are very bad – and numerous – but there are more problems than just the music. The concepts are boring, the choruses are weak or nonexistent, and Canibus is only exciting when he’s rhyming about battling. Like many other artists, he can rap his ass off, but he can’t make an actual song.
Ultimately, Canibus’s biggest obstacle may have been his own ego. From starting his career by battling a legend over a tattoo (‘Bis would get a similar one as seen above) to laying all blame at Wyclef’s feet to being so difficult to work with that DJ Premier returned the check, he’s like a kid who never takes responsibility. It’s always someone else’s fault. He’s made more than a dozen albums and, while there are a few bright spots here and there, none have been a complete project.
Maybe the issue is with you, Canibus.
Previously in Flashback Friday Flop:
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.