Remember Canibus? Lovers of hip-hop beef will recall the infamous rhyme battle between Canibus and LL Cool J that began when Uncle L offered Canibus a guest spot on the posse track “4,3,2,1”, featuring Redman, DMX, and Method Man. As the story goes, Canibus kicked a verse about rocking LL’s microphone tattoo. Despite Canibus’s explanation that ripping a tattoo off someone’s arm is a universal sign of respect, the feud had begun, culminating in Canibus’s lyrical attack on Cool J in the single “Second Round K.O.”
The exposure, plus his reputation on the mix-tape scene, generated enough hype to garner Canibus a record deal with MCA/Universal and a mixed bag of beats from producer Wyclef Jean. Unfortunately, after two major releases and several independent projects, Canibus has been unable to turn his red-hot lyricism into green profit.
This time around, Canibus grabs a partner named Phoenix Orion, a Mohawk-sporting, Brooklyn-bred emcee who claims Zulu Nation and Blackwatch (of X-Clan) credentials. They come together as Cloak-N-Dagga on their CD/DVD project Def Con Zero. Their tag team approach mimics EPMD (Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith) and Black Star (Talib Kweli and Mos Def) but, unlike those duos, the whole isn’t always greater than the sum of the parts. In other words, Canibus and Phoenix definitely have the skills, they just don’t seem to know what to do with them.
Let’s start with the album’s good points. First, there’s Phoenix Orion, who matches Canibus in intensity, but has a smoother voice which provides exactly the right blend for the sandpapery sound of Canibus’s vocals. At times, Phoenix Orion’s delivery reminds you of Kurupt, the more aggressive half of The Dogg Pound. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since Phoenix holds his own alongside guests like K-Solo and Kool G. Rap, but it also doesn’t help to distinguish Phoenix as a unique force in his own right.
Speaking of guests, there’s plenty to go around, from the old school players like K-Solo and Kool G. Rap to more currently known talents like Free (of 106 and Park) and Tyrant. When Canibus and Phoenix share the track with a guest or two, the results are usually good. Maybe the lyrics become more focused when there’s limited time to accommodate three or more vocalists. Of course, my theory is that Canibus, in particular, needs to have other people to compete with in order to kick his best flows. He’s a classic battle rapper, and the more rappers you add to the cipher, the more he pushes himself to excel. That also explains why he generally flows better with a partner than he did on his own.
Def Con Zero‘s production is superb, resulting in several standout tracks. “Don’t Hurt Nobody” features a laidback rhythm and a chant for a hook, a combination that sounds a little like 50 Cent and G-Unit. This song also presents Canibus and Phoenix at their most playful. Phoenix says, “I’m a flamethrower / if Jigga is Jehovah then fuck it, I’m Noah / Run for cover it’s the liquid flow-er.” When it’s time for Canibus to jump in, he rhymes, “I barely pulled the pants off my ass / nobody shit that fast / It’s nice to me to shit back wit’ class”.
But the cipher isn’t always so laidback. That’s why the album has songs like “H.T.R.”, “Titans”, “Letter From Head Trauma”, and “Livin’”. “H.T.R.”, one of the best songs on the disc, stomps over a slow-clapping track and pays homage to Head Trauma Records. “Titans” showcases a bare-bones instrumental of snare and keyboard, creating the most musically creative sound on the album. “Letter From Head Trauma” shares the spotlight with K-Solo and Kool G. Rap, over the same instrumental Public Enemy used in “Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos”. “Letter” is one of my favorites – for sentimental reasons: I got a kick out of listening to K-Solo do his signature spelling moves again and hearing a master like G. Rap bless the track. Finally, “Livin’” gives us classic ghetto tales, where the have-nots do what they have to cause they “have to make a livin’”. With its R&B hook, “Livin’” represents the album’s best bet for a single, despite the “heaven and hell is on earth” part that brings to mind the Salt N Pepa song of the same name.
Unfortunately, Def Con Zero has more weaknesses than strengths. One weakness is the title itself. Canibus offers the lame explanation that “def” and “con” refer to a nation’s Def-ense readiness Con-dition, and the “zero” refers to imminent detonation. That might have made sense if the song collection had a unifying theme remotely related to defense. But there isn’t a theme, other than the destruction of the universally despised “wack MC.” (Ever notice how it’s always someone else whose wackness is destroying the fabric of hip-hop?)
At the same time, the album’s main weakness is its lack of diverse subject matter. Canibus and Phoenix can ramble endlessly about their own skills, calling themselves the “dynamic duo” and generally bragging about how well they can flow. Because they really do have skills, it’s possible to forgive them for being so preoccupied with themselves. It’s even possible to forgive them for being corny. For instance, Canibus, who is often referred to as “Bis” (as the last syllable of his name is sometimes pronounced), starts a verse on “Majestic Mic Masters” with, “Welcome to the Nation of Bislam.” That’s awful, yet forgivable when viewed in the context of Bis’s potential.
In spite of all this forgiveness, there’s still the hope that they’ll kick a verse about another topic – any other topic in the universe even. But when they do, they only come up with one song, “Livin’”. Other than that, they have nothing of importance to say. With the album clocking in at 77 minutes and 44 seconds, the bravado ultimately leads to filler. The project would have been more potent if edited down from 19 full tracks (counting the intro and interlude) to 11 or 12 (not counting the intro and interlude). The title track isn’t exceptional, neither is the uninspired “Cloakman”, the boring “Majestic Mic Masters”, or the seriously out of place “Sit Yo Hot Ass Down”, which sounds like an opera with Gregorian chants. “Never Run” contains an embarrassing display of reggae, while “Venomous Spit” isn’t even a complete song.
The DVD side of the project isn’t much of a bonus. It’s basically a video mix of some of the album’s songs. It features a couple of bonus tracks, a photo gallery, and interviews with Canibus and Phoenix. Canibus’s interview comes off as lame and forced, but Phoenix exhibits knowledge of hip-hop’s history and legacy. Too bad that knowledge didn’t make it into the lyrics.
Canibus and Phoenix Orion are entertaining and make for a good team. This time around, they focused on the presentation. If they ever team up again, they’ll want to spend more time on what they really want to say rather than how tough they sound while saying it. For Canibus, who has made a career out of battling other rappers, the time might have arrived for him to have the type of inner-battle and soul searching that would make for deeper material, like he’s certainly capable of producing.