The Lyricist’s Last Stand

“It’s Moment time!  It’s Moooment  Tiiiime!”  While I’m not a fan of Reverend Jesse, his words are very appropriate in understanding when to seize an opportunity. There are many pivotal points in history where an action could have gone left instead of right, and that moment would alter everything. Imagine if Rosa Parks wasn’t that […]

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“It’s Moment time!  It’s Moooment  Tiiiime!”  While I’m not a fan of Reverend Jesse, his words are very appropriate in understanding when to seize an opportunity. There are many pivotal points in history where an action could have gone left instead of right, and that moment would alter everything. Imagine if Rosa Parks wasn’t that tired and decided to get up? What if Lincoln decided he didn’t want to go to the movies? These things happen in all walks of life.  Almost 10 years ago, one such incident occurred that could have reshaped the entire history of Hip-Hop. This is the story of the Lyricist’s Last Stand.


Now watch me rip that tat from your arm/ kick you in the groin, stick you for your Vanguard Award in front of your moms/ your first second and third born/ make your wife get on the horn to Minister Farrakhan/ so he could persuade me to squash it/ I said nah he started it, he forgot what a hardcore artist is…


Powered by a disgustingly gutter bass line, a pre-bite Mike Tyson preamble, and a ferociously angry MC, the above words put the entire rap industry on pause.  A young, hungry rapper named Canibus drew his line in the sand and declared war on a battle-tested, yet very mainstream LL Cool J.  On the surface, it was a battle of wills; a clash of egos.  In reality it was a war for the very direction of Hip-Hop, and at the center was the brash young upstart.


Much like today, Hip-Hop stood at a crossroads.  Still reeling from the recent deaths of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G., and before the ascension of Jay-z and the rise of the South, we were scrambling to find what was next.  LL was in the midst of yet another comeback.  Death Row and BadBoy who had the previous 3 years in a Cobra Clutch had both seen better days.  DMX was raging against the pop machine to astonishing numbers but you just knew that his shtick, while effective, couldn’t last long, or drag the music to where it could rest.  Enter Canibus.  With one of the illest guest appearances of all-time (Lost Boyz’ Beasts From the East) where he outshined veterans like lyrical giant Redman, young and hungry and no longer teen A-Plus, and Mr. Cheeks, Canibus seemed ready for something great.  We were in uncharted waters.


Before 50 Cent made mixtape history, Canibus was ripping apart everything in sight, with bar after bar of that s### you just never heard before.  He seemed like the next phase in evolution in a way that Rakim and Nas were years before.  From 88 to 93 was 5 years.  It was now 98, and our evolutionary bump was due, and the music seemed poised to anoint ‘Bis as the next one.  Punchline after punchline, unrestrained by bar limits, beats, and whoever else was unlucky enough to bless the same track, this guy was just devouring everything in sight like Unicron.  He had the lyrics.  He had the voice, and he had fire; passion in a manner we hadn’t seen since a young James Todd Smith took a musclebound man and put his face in the sand. His coronation seemed imminent after an appearance on Hot97’s Funkmaster Flexx show, where Noreaga, the red-hot DMX, and Canibus combined to make history.  As good as his partners in rhyme were, ‘Bis was like a Porsche driving next to a guy and his girl in their Nissan.  Sooner or later, he turns and winks and you’re breathing exhaust.  Then came 4,3,2,1.


In the studio during the creation of the historic collaboration, the young beast crafted a rhyme that was raw and paid homage to Cool J, while elbowing some space for ascension. Inspired by the verse, LL returned to the pad, and wrote his verse as a pseudo response battle rhyme and convinced ‘Bis to change his verse so that LL’s would stand alone. Canibus agreed, but somewhere along the line things got twisted.  ‘Bis seemingly wanted recognition for his lost verse, and took offense to the “young sons fantasize of borrowing flows” line from the cleanup verse. Things escalated, Canibus was replaced on the single by then-hot Master P, and it would all blow over.  Or so LL thought.


Canibus teamed with Fugee musician Wyclef Jean for the song 2nd Round KO, a devastating blow which probably would have ended the careers of just about any rapper out at the time. It had all the elements: the murky beat, the disparaging lyrics, testosterone-fueled machismo, and genuine enmity for the subject. It left everyone who heard it with their jaws dropped, and Hip-Hop with a front row seat.  It was moment time for Canibus.  It was gut-check time for Cool J. On the line was the future of the music.  After years of violence, after a few years of shiny suits, after a few years of gimmick driven hits, the people stood poised for a refreshing change.  For all his legendary status, LL now represented the flash and the fluff.  Canibus was the bringer of the new noise, and for maybe the first time since the post Chronic era, the consumers were willing to listen. It’s been a long time coming, but a change was gon’ come.  Then it all went down hill.


LL wasn’t going to go quietly. He released “The Ripper Strikes Back”, when everyone thought he would stay on the mat. Then he released “Rasta Impasta.” While not as historic as 2nd Round KO, they proved that while stunned, LL was still on his feet and counter punching. Canibus on the other hand, had an album to release.  More mixtapes, more guest tracks, more blistering bars propelled him towards his moment.  Wyclef manned the guns musically after his recent successes with the classic Score, and the strong Carnival, and a slew of remixes.  You couldn’t have asked for a better lead into such a momentous occasion.  Then Canibus did the unthinkable.  He bricked.  The album that would have been the focal point for a new era was…subpar.  Even if you muted the lofty expectations, it was absolutely meh. There was no joy in mudville, Mighty Canibus had struck out.  Sure the album went gold, which was a testament to how many people were really ready for that change.  It was not to be.  His buzz quietly fizzled out, and he is now even with all his talent a mere footnote in Hip-Hop history, and a speed bump in the career of LL Cool J. 


Since then we’ve come close a few times to reaching style over substance.  On those occasions where the back-to-the-essence brigade have reached the point where they would assert themselves in the face of various musical movements and buffoonery that has been married to this music, they have always blinked or come up short.  Kweli’s not-so Beautiful Moment was in 2004. Riding the crest of “Get By”, backed by the Jigga co-sign, Kweli failed to deliver.  Ditto Lupe Fiasco, last year.  He had the prerequisite skill, but he just didn’t have the oomph. He just didn’t resonate with the people. He had the talent, but lacked the force of will.  Kanye makes good music, but he’s more of a producer than a rapper and his histrionics can turn some off.

I’m sure that we’ll see this recurring clash again.  Recent events have proven that people are hungry for nutritious music.  They are begging for someone to offer that dish.  Almost a decade ago, we may have had our best shot.  Never before had ability, charisma, and desire, arrive with moment at the perfect place and stage in time.  When we look back on this, hopefully the next guy in his moment can remember the Lyricist’s Last Stand.  It’s been a long time coming, but hopefully, a change gone come.