Rap supremacy is a hard thing to maintain. Brilliance in the field of rap music could be its own field of academic study (“I received my master’s degree in Hip-Hopography from Stanford. It was a rigorous program”). Excellence in rapping seems to follow no discernable scientific laws or standards, and cannot be recreated in the “lab”. To whit, look at the so-called ten-plus year eminence of Jay-Z. On closer examination, his greatness is as much of a shrewdly managed PR campaign as it is a period of musical fecundity. Jay-Z insists on his own greatness, and people believe him. Little does it matter whether he’s still actually good or not. “What about Kanye?” you might say. The fact is that Kanye can’t, or won’t, rap. He is more of a composer and curator, an Andy Warhol creating zeitgeist mosaics for us to enjoy, and making us think about our post-millennial moment in history.
Rap is also filled with amazing one-off albums. Illmatic, Madvillainy, Hell Hath No Fury, The Cold Vein, The Chronic (2001), the list goes on (and on, depending on who you ask). Somehow the follow-ups never seem as good, or never seem to happen. Lightning rarely strikes twice. Also in broad consideration for “greatness” are the nebulous discographies of Biggie and Tupac, too lost now in hagiography, cult of personality and musical revisionism to offer any definitive statement on the actual brilliance of these diametrically towering colossi.
What about those shooting stars, those flame-out Icarii who launched ever so briefly into the heavens, offering painfully short glimpses of tremendous potential, before gravity reestablished its immutable will? I would like to posit two such sightings, one of Canibus and one of Lil Wayne.
Canibus’ career is a well-documented train wreck. Recognized for his raw talent on the mic, Canibus built up hype and a following in anticipation of his major label albums, which turned out to be complete doo doo. His beat selection was abhorrent and his songs were neither forceful nor fun. Canibus’ dalliance with the mainstream ended when he inadvertently offended LL Cool J, initiating a beef that would exhaust the public of Canibus’ raspy bark. A long and weird pseudo-exile followed, in which Canibus suffered a musical vagrancy which resulted in bizarre premises and a string of albums that radiate a sad straight-to-VHS quality.
Given the long comedy of errors, it’s easy to forget – easier to never know at all – that Canibus could rap like a motherfucking God. The best displays of his talent happened not on wax, but on the radio, in a series of freestyles promoting his upcoming major label releases. These are collected on “Lost Lyrics – The best of Canibus”. The sheer quality of Canibus’ rapping on some of the tracks is breathtaking, and over short spare, catchy beats he shines in a way that he never did in his early albums. On “Heat Wave Hot 97 Freestyle”, Canibus bursts out of the gate with a striking scene:
“I cut through your epidermal layers with verbal lasers, sharp as the razors on the feet of Olympic ice skaters, carving figure 8’s in the pavement, judges will smile with amazement till they facial muscles start aching”
Trad battle rap you say? Nyet! There’s something about Canibus’ sense of detail and his turns of phrase that set him apart. In the same freestyle he boasts he “Intertwines with rhymes like, two girls living together, having their menstrual cycles at the same time.” And says he’ll “Hit you like the Shoemaker-Levy 9 Comet.” He’ll also “Type my rhymes out in Morse code with pinky toes.” And speaks of “Searching for that pot of gold under the rainbow, or searching for that big pot of platinum down at the bottom of the North Atlantic with the Titanic captain.” Who thinks of this stuff? There’s a sense of scope here that’s almost postmodern. There is action, depth and engaging micro-storytelling, and it’s all folded artfully into Canibus’ rapid-fire battle rap.
In some of the other freestyles Canibus drops gems like:
“Slippery saliva keeps my delivery tighter, enabling me to outmaneuver Russian MIG fighters”
“Splatter the brain matter of my enemies, with the same bullet trajectory that murdered John Kennedy”
“Punks wanna murder me, that’s why my burgundy suburban be, full of secret service security, transporting me back and forth from the affirmative action university, in aircrafts that take off and land vertically”
“Ambushing MCs, jumping out the trees like Vietnamese in fatigues covered with leaves”
There was a talent here, belonging to a prodigal son who is still out wandering out somewhere, perhaps aware that the times have pretty much passed him by. Other miscellaneous highlights include the long-winded “Who Shot Ya Freestyle”, featuring verses salvaged from Canibus’ albums. A few examples:
“Run faster than leopards running across the vast desert at 22 yards per second and catch me the daily delicatessen, takes me thirty minutes to eat em, forty minutes to digest em and fifty minutes for it to pass though my intestines…”
“In my past life I slayed hundreds, in the life before that, I played trumpets to warn you that I was coming…”
“My tongue hydraulics, strong enough to flip a ’64 impala with three adult passengers and a 400-pound driver, and drown you in less than an ounce of your own saliva.”
Another, non-mixtape favorite of mine is “Making a Name for Ourselves” in which Common (“I can tell by how you write, you the type to run in a fight”) is outshined thoroughly by Canibus (“I’ll hit you in the chest so hard your shoulders will touch”) on his own song.
However, trying to make a case for Canibus’ greatness can make one feel like some down-and-out Nicolas Cage movie character, clutching shards of ruined pottery with dirty fingers. You grab at the arms and jackets of passers-by, intimating in urgent and fanatic seriousness that if the pieces will just fit together, reforming the ancient vase they once embodied, a phoenix will burst forth with flaming golden wings and cleanse the world of all darkness.
It’s much easier to make a case for Lil Wayne. Everybody loves Lil Wayne, but people love Lil Wayne for a lot of different reasons. The zenith of Wayne’s actual rap talent happened sometime between 2006 and 2007, when “Dedication 2” and “Da Drought 3” (Here’s disc 2) were released. At that time, Wayne’s mind had opened a connection with an interstellar consciousness, which beamed him effortless and head-slappingly clever lyrics every time he stepped into the vocal booth.
In places, Wayne’s rapping is so effortlessly brilliant that despite his sometimes nonchalant and loose delivery, the wordplay is double-take worthy. Take “Sportscenter”, from Dedication II, in which Weezy rambles nimbly, but uninflectedly over a simple booming track. Every line seems to drip with meaning, and the runs of associations slip by so smoothly that you’ll find yourself going “Huh?” and pressing rewind again and again. A few highlights:
“Catch up bitch I’m in gear three, zoom, gone, see ya, peace! Drop one finger.”
“I waited on my turn to burn can I get a light? Little dog, bigger bite, Jackson Five, little mike, can I get a mic or a mic and a half, that the source owe me, shout out to the editor’s staff.
“Young god baby, all them other niggas reverends.”
Excerpts don’t do “Sportscenter” justice. Weezy takes us down a winding pathway of associative thought worthy of great literature, delivered casually, as if he is rapping in the back of a friend’s car.
It’s tempting to pick apart Weezy here, and hold him to some unrealistic level of scrutiny. However, it’s more interesting to listen to him rapping next to others. The results can be frightening. Take “Black Republicans” from Da Drought 3, in which Juelz Santana drops in, full of confidence. However, after Santana jaws and banters with Wayne, his double-tracked, banal verse comes out painfully labored and flat – Sisyphean in its patronizing inelegance. You can hear Santana chuckling unconvincingly at his own corny-ass punchlines (“I protect my land, like a farmer”, “Y’all washed up like money that’s laundered”, “Rock star, flyer than a ostrich”) in the adlibs.
Wayne takes over and delivers a ribald, infectiously funny verse with the greatest of ease – agile Hermes dancing gleefully over the scene, alighting once lightly on Juelz’s boulder before bounding off to the mountaintop. Just the way Wayne pronounces his rhyming words is uproarious. Listen to the enunciations on “Mulligan” “Sullivan” “Continent” “Politic” “Polident” and try not to smile. Wayne also delivers one of my favorite laugh lines of all time – “Fly like an eagle but nooo I’m not Donovan, boy you better go eat some soup with your mom and dem!”
Perhaps the high water mark for Weezy, at least emotionally, is “Dough is What I Got” Wayne takes Jay-Z’s glitzy, safe, Movado/Champagne/Calvin Klein/NASCAR commercial (it’s got celebrities and everything. It actually ended up as commercial for Budweiser) and re-energizes it with the hunger and joy of the underdog. The beatific, regal Just Blaze beat is the same, but Wayne comes to establish his greatness, not rest on his laurels. In the stemwinder of a first verse, there are droll lines like “But your boy just relax like a fresh new perm”, a hilariously clever three-bar suite about Mortal Kombat, tangled allusions to the NBA’s greatest and Jay-Z, a mention of the passing seasons, funny slapstick (“I hit niggas in the head like Vonage”), and a salacious line that would upset Steve Largent. All are delivered with a vivacity and surety that sound like freedom.
Tangentially, I felt upon hearing these songs that Weezy had entered a province of word-and-meaning-drunk potency that echoed that of an unlikely predecessor – Captain Beefheart. Listen to “Lick My Decals Off, Baby” and tell me the Beefheart does not sound like a languidly sexual proto-Weezy. More than that, at their best, Weezy and Beefheart shared a sense of spontaneous and often hilarious lyrical self-discovery, playing carefree in the world of associations at speeds and levels far beyond those of mere mortals. Beefheart’s strange chain in “My Human Gets Me Blues” of “I saw you baby dancing in your x-ray gingham dress, I knew you were under duress, I knew you under your dress” is like a prophecy predicting Wayne. I may be out on a limb here, but I was interested enough in the theory to make a remix about it.
So there you have it. For two shining moments, Canibus and Lil Wayne were the most potent rappers on the planet. But alas, the candle that burns a hundred times as bright, burns a hundredth as long. They flared out long before they could create any legitimate masterworks. Canibus and Wayne both have polished studio albums, but none of them showcase the reasons that weird rap geeks hold them in such messianic esteem. I lost my interest in arguing about the merits of one rapper versus another’s some time ago, but apparently some people haven’t. I probably sound like a fossil talking about Canibus and ‘06/’07 Lil Wayne, but one can still get a kick out of listening to their clever old verses all these years later, like reading quotes from Oscar Wilde. So check em out, see whether rap has somehow evolved past the pursuits of these transient moments of lyrical bliss, or whether rap is waiting for Bis and Weezy to return, like astrological events, their outward manifestations changed, but their essences intact.