The battle between LL Cool J and Canibus is both memorable and unforgettable for a number of reasons, which I'll go into details on during this post. Before I jump into the beginning of the battle, which started with the classic "4,3,2,1", I want to give a brief historical perspective.
Starting with LL, going into 1998, he was already a hip hop legend. His track record was impressive, including a string of classic singles, 6 albums (3 classic, 2 very good, & 1 ok/decent), mainstream acceptance (TV, movies, awards, etc), clothing (FUBU), etc. And speaking of battles, LL had already reigned supreme against the likes of Kool Moe Dee, Ice-T, and MC Hammer, so he had essentially done it all at this point. Canibus, on the other hand, gained notoriety in 1997, delivering outstanding, show stealing verses on just about each song he was featured on, with some examples being Lost Boyz' "Beasts From The East", Common's "Making A Name For Ourselves", and The Firm's "Desperados". Along with multiple DOPE freestyles on mixtapes, Canibus had such a strong buzz heading into 1998, leading into his highly anticipated debut solo album. BUT, before I speak on the "Can-I-Bus" album, we have to revisit "4,3,2,1", which is how this battle between LL and Canibus began.
I'll start with the original Canibus verse, then the actual, officially released song with his verse being changed.
In 1998, this was a big deal. We had three well known and respected MCs in the form of LL, Meth, and Redman, with newcomers (albeit experienced in certain ways) in Canibus and DMX. All five MCs brought their lyrical A-game over a tight Erick Sermon production, creating a classic, and as far as I'm concerned, the remix with Master P doesn't exist!
THE BEGINNING OF THE BATTLE
First things first, I want to speak on a few things that KRS-One said in the "Beef 2" documentary. When asked about Canibus' line "is that a mic on your arm, let me borrow that", KRS all but disagreed with the thought of him even asking (even though it was sincere, and more on this in a bit), and should've been lucky to be on the song. Well, in defense of Canibus, his asking to borrow the mic on LL's arm (a tattoo by the way) was a sense of honor and respect in my view. I honestly didn't see Canibus as being disrespectful or trying to do anything other than be part of this classic song. Now, one can argue that his opening lines on the official version are shots themselves ("I'm the illest n**** alive, watch me prove it/I'll snatch the crown wit ya head still attached to it"). Continuing on, leave it to LL to take something out of context and run with it (as mentioned by Method Man in the same documentary), and with hindsight being 20/20, LL and Canibus' actions directly created a "battle within the song" for the first (and likely last) time ever. You also can't forget that LL initially asked Canibus to change his original verse (not sure why) and he agreed. LL didn't change his, and after all these years, it has led me to believe LL KNEW what he was doing and the results spoke for themselves. When you look at the following lines from LL, it's completely clear who he was talking about in his verse, and hip hop fans can usually spot a subliminal or non-subliminal message instantly.
"The symbol on my arm is off limits to challengers/You hold the rusty sword, I swing the excalibur"
"Now let's get back to this mic on my arm/If it ever left my side it'll transform into a timebomb/You don't wanna borrow that, you wanna idolize/And you don't wanna make me mad n****, you wanna socialize"
Wow, the battle lines had been drawn, and when you listen to the verse, you can say LL was going at Canibus throughout the entire thing. All sorts of pressure was on Canibus now, and as far as "the streets" were concerned, he had to respond. Then, "Second Round K.O." was born.
SECOND ROUND K.O.
On this classic, top 10 diss song, Canibus held nothing back, calling out LL on a few things and lyrically venting his frustrations towards him and the entire situation. The song overall is fire, but I want to speak on three lines.
"So I'm gon let the world know the truth/You don't want me to shine, you studied my rhyme/Then you laced your vocals after mine, that's a bitch move!"
Those opening lines set the tone right there, moreso than Mike Tyson's opening. Who knows, maybe LL was *slightly* intimidated/nervous/jealous about Canibus and all the attention he was receiving, and possibly saw himself as how he used to be when he was just starting in the mid 80s, therefore he could've perceived him as a threat long before anyone else even thought about it. So, asking Canibus to change his verse, was that an elaborate plan to destroy him? Things that make you go "hmmm".
"You walk around showin off ya body cause it sells/Plus to avoid the fact that you ain't got skills/Mad at me cause I kick that shit real n***** feel/While 99% of your fans wear high heels"
Canibus did mention two important things, in that he showed off his body (cause it sold) and the majority of his fanbase were women. Some did agree with those comments. I want to focus on the line "plus to avoid the fact that you ain't got skills". Outside of a couple of songs, notably the remix to "I Shot Ya" and "4,3,2,1", the general consensus was that LL wasn't at his lyrical best since 1990's "Mama Said Knock You Out", and when you listen to the albums "14 Shots To The Dome", "Mr. Smith" (this was a very good album), and "Phenomenon", that's a valid point I think. This battle with Canibus lit a fire under LL, which I'll discuss more later.
"..... Make your wife get on the horn, call Minister Farrakhan/So he can persuade me to squash it/I'll say nah he started it, he forgot what a hardcore artist is"
Make no mistake about it, this was started by LL, simply by asking Canibus to change his verse on "4,3,2,1". Did LL forget what a "hardcore artist" was at the time? It's possible, especially after the "Mama Said Knock You Out" album. He began to rest on his laurels a bit and it would take something like this to get him started again.
After hearing this song the first time, I and others thought that not only was this a great response, but LL finally met his match on the mic after previous years of enduring challengers. I did not see this as an end to LL's career by any means. The buzz on Canibus was still strong at this point, but man, the momentum would shift, and shift very quickly when LL returned with the apply titled "The Ripper Strikes Back".
THE RIPPER STRIKES BACK
Much like Canibus did with "Second Round K.O.", LL wasted no time right out the gate with the call and response of "Can I buss? Yes you can!" Allow me to highlight a few lines here.
"49 pounds and tryin to be a monster/Run around town with them Bob Marley imposters"
Oohhh, he brought Wyclef Jean into it, and although I would never call Clef a "Bob Marley imposter", lol, it was clear (again) who LL was talking about, due to Canibus collaborating with Clef on the "Gone Till November" remix and his debut. This line prompted "What's Clef Got To Do With It".
"Ask Canibus, he ain't understandin this/While 99% of his fans don't exist"
Canibus did have his fans, but compared to LL, he had about of fraction of the number of fans LL had, and probably even less today. As proven with the line about Clef, anyone involved felt LL's wrath, as he went at Mike Tyson too ("Heard that convicted rapist on the record too/Fresh out of jail, ass cheeks still black and blue"). Wow, ouch.
Comments made by Kool Moe Dee and DJ Kay Slay on the aforementioned Beef documentary sums this song up perfectly:
*LL did a lot more with his energy and made it seem like it was imbalanced, with LL looking like the superstar, hip hop vet, while Canibus was the new MC in town
*In the end LL was just too much for Canibus
I thought the song was nice and after revisiting them both, they're almost neck and neck. The perception after this was that LL was the victor, although reaction was mostly in favor of Canibus.
BACK WHERE I BELONG
And just when you thought "The Ripper Strikes Back" ended everything, LL effectively closed the book on this chapter in his career with his second verse from this song.
"You came up wit that bullshit, some heads sucked it up/Then you dropped that garbage album and totally fucked it up"
Man, Canibus disappointed A LOT of fans with his debut album "Can-I-Bus", and he even went so far as to blame Wyclef for its failures, which really didn't help his cause any. I wouldn't say it was "garbage", it was mostly disappointing considering all the hype and buzz surrounding it.
"I coulda told the world the way your label hate your guts/And how me and Wyclef got together to set you up"
When I first heard these lines, I was like "wow", and I don't think this was ever confirmed by Clef himself. So, the shots at Clef on "The Ripper Strikes Back" were another part of an elaborate plan, all the while LL never having Canibus' best interest in mind? Kind of stunning even today. And it continues.
"And how he gave me half your budget, don't believe me look it up/Ya A&R promotion n*****, they helped me set it up"
Just wow. Again, an elaborate plan I must ask. Or am I over-analyzing this a bit, lol?
"I hate to be responsible for destroyin your career/A one hit wonder huh, no wonder you disappeared" <--- More of this later too.
"I coulda told the world you get your lyrics from the internet/Then spit em word for word like you really a rap vet/How you take metaphors from books and put em in your rhymes/And how you really from Canada and you been frontin all this time"
This pretty much sealed Canibus' fate right here, along with everything else.
"I heard your second album, that shit is garbage too/LL Cool J, and I did this to you"
Well, if that second album (2000 B.C.) didn't have any buzz at first, it was killed with that line.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Wow, this battle started off on even ground, then it became a one sided thrashing. Canibus had all the hype and buzz in the world leading into his 1998 debut, and the fact that he stood up to LL didn't kill his career. With hindsight being 20/20, again, him not being able to deliver on that buzz and hype (with his debut), in addition to the vicious words from LL, pretty much permanently stopped ALL of his momentum, to a point where "Second Round K.O." WAS his one and only hit. Every album released after "Can-I-Bus" received LESS attention than the one before it. You see, he was still active in hip hop, but on a VERY low key basis and only hardcore fans were checking for him. A year or so ago as of this post, he participated in a freestyle battle/session, and proceeded to pull out written rhymes, smh. I'm sorry Canibus, but when you're reduced to this, you're done. Overall, his career has NOT been the same since running into LL, and that's an understatement.
Speaking of LL, well, in a sense he used Canibus, to not only further his own career (even thanking him for inspiration in the "G.O.A.T." album inserts' shout out section), but to re-energize him and light a (lyrical) fire under him that hadn't been seen in years. Asking Canibus to change his verse on "4,3,2,1" was either a strategic move or a manipulative one (or both), and in defense of Canibus, he likely was not even aware of what was happening. I also believe that LL took Canibus' asking to "borrow the mic" as a form of disrespect, and I disagree with that, but again, he took it out of context. Not only did 1998's "Phenomenon" go double platinum, outselling Canibus' entire discography on its own, but LL released 6 more albums, starred in additional movies and TV shows, and continued to cement his legacy as one of the all time greats.
The lesson learned here is, although it was admirable (and risky/gutsy) for Canibus to even stand up to LL in a hip hop form, you have to be aware of exactly what you're getting into when battling a legend. Responding in battle is essential, but that must be sustained throughout. You should never leave any type of words unanswered, which is what Canibus did after "Back Where I Belong". Then again, Canibus never had anything close to the support that LL had, which was another key factor in the downfall of his career. I'm not sure where they stand with each other today, but one thing is certain, we'll never see another battle like this again.