Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #564:
Canibus – Mic Club: The Curriculum
A rare example of a lyricist who more than lived up to the extreme hype surrounding his 1998 debut, Canibus represents the pinnacle of East Coast hardcore hip-hop wordsmithing: he’s never made a bad album. This 2002 underground classic is where he really took his game to the next level: erudite, serious as hell but also funny as hell with the mot juste when he wants to skewer someone. He’s so articulate here that he doesn’t even feel the need to use any curse words until track six. The rhymes come fast and furious with Poet Laureate; Masters Thesis; the scathing Behind Enemy Rhymes; Allied Meta-Forces, with a typically potent Kool G Rap cameo; Cenoir Studies 02; C Section; Literal Arts (featuring heavy-hitting Philly artist Jedi Mind Tricks) and Curriculum 101. As much as hip-hop has always been more about the lyrics than the backing tracks, the samples here are especially imaginative (when’s the last time you heard somebody sample Pink Floyd’s Summer ’68?). Here’s a random torrent.
Reviewing a hip-hop album in an unfamiliar language is a recipe for disaster potentially compounded tenfold in the case of a westerner haphazardly attempting to shed some light on a characteristically slang-laden, regionally-centric release from the third world. Saying that this album is full of pleasant dance grooves would be like a non-Wolof speaker explaining how the classic Ousmane Sembene film Camp de Thiaroye is full of striking urban imagery. So here goes a shot at something better. Sister Fa is the biggest female hip-hop star in Senegal, a more impressive accomplishment than it may seem considering that female performers other than singers are often frowned upon in the dominant Muslim culture. Suffice it to say that it was a pretty rough road for her, but Sister Fa – now based in Germany – is every bit as popular on her old home turf as, say, L’il Kim is here. On her new album she raps in Wolof, Manding, Jola and French, pretty much in that order. From a Francophone perspective, her flow is completely original, a rapidfire delivery that seems to draw on what was fermenting in Brooklyn and Staten Island in the late 80s and early 90s, through the prism of popular 90s French-African acts like MC Solaar and Menelik. If there are similar Senegalese lyricists out there, at least from a western perspective, they’re under the radar. No doubt that originality struck a nerve – not to mention her fearless political stance as a crusader against female genital mutilation (Sister Fa herself was maimed at an early age).
Having succeeded where she started, she’s shooting for a broader audience (at least with the French material here), eschewing local scene-oriented topical material for a broader anti-violence, populist, generally uplifting vibe. That which isn’t narrative here is boast without the bling, much in the same spirit as Canibus – Sister Fa has the confidence to go with her words alone without bragging about how much luxury brand crap she owns, and it works. The more specific material has a message: for example, one of the Wolof numbers, Life AM, set to one of the more ominous samples here, is a no-nonsense guide to how to avoid AIDS and STDs. As far as the backing tracks are concerned, this one has more of a vintage 80s feel, straight-up samples without backward masking plus occasional loops of pretty, fluttery kora (West African harp) and acoustic guitar over a variety of beats ranging from light trip-hop to subsonic thud. At itunes and better urban record stores.
Got there on time, about quarter after nine. By the time I got inside (mega frisking – no great surprise, after all: this was a hip-hop show), McGruff was finishing up. He didn’t embarrass himself – it seems that Canibus is choosy about who rides with him. Surprisingly, the crowd wasn’t as energized as it usually is for hip-hop at this venue (one of the few in town south of 125th St. that’s willing to book rap at all). Canibus came on shortly therafter and delivered only a 30-minute set – the advantage for those who came out tonight was that nobody had to stand on the accursed floor here long enough for their feet to hurt). Although Canibus only has one album under his belt, he’s already in the upper echelon of rap lyricists. He also has a stage presence I’ve only seen in a few hip-hop artists: Chuck D, Ice-T and KRS-One. To drive home his talent, much of his show was just him rapping without any backing tape or support whatsoever: he’d do a verse, then they’d turn the DAT on again, then there’d be a pause (“Yo yo yo….”), then on with the show. His most impressive bit was a freestyle: again, without the DAT running. Other high points of the night were the acerbic, politically-charged Nigganometry from the new album, and then, predictably, his monster hit Second Round Knockout, to close the show. Mike Tyson didn’t show up to contribute anything. The sound was fantastic: you could hear every word, and the backing tape was pleasantly low in the mix, mostly low, computerized bass rather than the trebly, feedback-prone screech that it usually is here for rap shows. It’s unlikely that someone this talented and bound for stardom will be doing any more appearances at such a relatively small venue.