Canibus
Rip the Jacker
Babygrande
2003
B+



off lyrics alone I'm a legend / But I can't take credit, the English language was not my invention / It's the way I put it together / The incorrect English editor”.

These lines from “Spartibus“, the seventh track on Rip the Jacker, sum up Canibus’ lyrical approach perfectly. The entire English language is seemingly contained in his mind: the sheer volume and variety on each track is astounding. He has word after word lined up in his head, bursting to be articulated. So he deletes and re-arranges until they are moulded into a savage, scholarly verbal assault.

To some, Canibus’ approach is joyless. The end result is brutally efficient, complex battle rhymes—ones which express little more than their creator’s technical gifts. Convoluted, wordy insults are all well and good, but perhaps don’t go down as easy when they are seen as an end in themselves. Speed and an extensive vocabulary do not create a great MC on their own. Canibus lacks the elements of showmanship and subtlety that would make him palatable to a wider audience. He consistently spits rhymes out with manic fury, but rarely alters the texture of his voice, takes care to emphasize individual words or alter pronunciations for effect.

What’s more, his career has been dogged by poor choices, particularly with regard to collaborators. His widely-hyped debut album Can-I-Bus has become something of a joke—Canibus’ ferocious intellectualism obviously running counter to producer Wyclef Jean’s soft-centred approach. By the time the appropriately brittle backing tracks on follow-up 2000 BC were unleashed, the buying public had already moved on.

Rather than throwing the towel in, Canibus has built himself a new career outside of the mainstream (this is his 5th album) . He remains unrelentingly bitter about his failure to break big, but hasn’t let it consume (and ultimately destroy) his artistic output. He’s clearly been honing his lyrical skill, and seeking out producers better equipped to mock and frame his furiously educated outpourings.

Rip the Jacker’s producer Stoupe proves to be a perfect foil. The beats have the solidity required to withstand the hurricane of Canibus’ wordplay, but there is also a pleasing level of instrumental detail and liquidity in the arrangements. “Levitibus”, for example, is a gorgeous Eastern-flavoured number: wailing female vocals counterpoint a deranged, but wittily self aggrandising onslaught from ’Bus (“Even my worst album was sublime / If I don’t slow down / I'll distort the timeline / Back through the time”). The deft musical variety that Canibus has spent so long searching for is certainly here: balanced between sunny, lush, laid-back productions (“M-Sea-Cresy”, reggae-tinged number “No Return”) and oppressive walls of strings and horns (“Psych Evaluation”, “Cemantics”).

Those who find Canibus’ wordiness boring and impenetrable will not be swayed by this album. He remains unflinchingly committed to expanding and demonstrating the full range of his vocabulary. However, Rip the Jacker is an interesting glimpse into his troubled, frequently contradictory state of mind. Amid the intricately constructed boasts and disses, Canibus frequently emerges with interesting confessional details. While his self-satisfaction can make him a dislikeable narrator, he suggests that the lack of respect shown to his skills as an MC forces him to furiously fight his own corner (“I prefer modesty over controversy / But what am I to do when these jerks keep botherin’ me?”).

Canibus shows some signs that he has turned the corner, and come to terms with his failure to succeed commercially. On “Indibisible” he is comfortable with his poor chart performance, content in the knowledge that he is still a great MC (“Regardless of whether I'm not a bestseller / I'm a first class spitter”). However, there are also signs that he harbours a deep-lying disillusionment with the rap game on “M-Sea-Cresy”. Here, Canibus rues the difficulties he has in making a living from music (“Why write lyrics when I make a better livin’ / Sellin’ freeze dried venom to wildlife clinics?”) Why, indeed? Thankfully, he then provides the answer: “Cuz I hate the thought of bein’ a predictable bore”. Thank goodness for that. But, wait: just a few lines later, he’s bidding the rap game farewell: “After this album my message is done”.

Canibus is still full of scorn for his detractors, but it would be unwise to show him any sympathy either—as he warns us from doing on “Levitibus”: (“You look at me like "poor bastard / Why cant you manipulate billboards with all your metaphor magic?”…/ But if you wanna see some hardcore Canibus just say so”)

So, while Canibus is as conflicted as he’s always been, it’s finally that on Rip the Jacker that a producer has provided the musical focus which ties it together perfectly. He may be insecure about his future, and retirement may be just around the corner, but if he is to bow out, it will be as an under-appreciated artist at the peak of his powers.
Reviewed by: Kilian Murphy
Reviewed on: 2004-04-05
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