The Importance of Being Busta
Busta Rhymes was a member of the acclaimed Long Island crew Leaders of the New School, but that means nothing, really. He was Busta but he wasn’t Busta for real until he popped up at the end of A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 The Low End Theory, anchoring the world’s greatest posse cut, “Scenario”. He went “Rawr, rawr like a dungeon dragon” in his big Caribbean/Flatbush voice and rhymed that with “Your pants are saggin’ ” and muttered and stuttered and toasted and growled through a chorus and a half of pure hip-hop energy, almost completely blowing away Q-Tip and Phife and everyone else on the track. He went in a footnote, he came out a star—and he honed that star with subsequent cameos (the remix of Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear”), the last LotNS album in 1993, and his first solo album, The Coming, which pretty much took over the world in 1996.
Seriously, it did. Not only was “Woo-Hah! Got You All in Check” a Top 10 single, it also established Busta Rhymes’ persona: a kind of Urban-Goth Coyote, a trickster figure who was all about impending doom, gettin’ into the womb, and shakin’ the room. Weird wild stuff emanated from that album: not only was this wild man proclaiming that “There’s only five years left!” like a street preacher, but he was also inventing intercalary skits in which he thoughtfully provided cunnilingus for a female acquaintance only to be shut down when he wanted some reciprocation. The beats were atmospheric and sparse and screwed-up, reminding me no small amount of the sounds on Divine Styler’s Spiral Walls Reflect Autumns of Light, but they were somehow simultaneously commercialized and humanized by Rhymes’ barbaric yawp. In that sad time for rhyme, Busta Rhymes was different, and that difference was just the fact that he was Busta Rhymes. “Scream at the top of my lungs until you fuckers hear me!” explained it all to me back then: he was a goth, a bright young man with depth and fire and, somewhere, a broken heart.
Everything proceeded apace: each of his subsequent albums, When Disaster Strikes, Extinction Level Event, and Anarchy, was more fiery, more confident, and more apocalyptic than the one that preceded it. He’s got a real end-of-the-world fixation, but isn’t too serious to have fun with it, as the hilarious opening skit on E.L.E. proved: a father telling his child a bedtime story suddenly turns into a demon from hell predicting the end of the world—to which the child replies, “Wow, that’s cool! I can’t hardly wait!” A torrent of popular singles accompanied these albums: “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See”, “Iz They Wilding Wit Us & Gettin Rowdy Wit Us?”, “Gimme Some More”, “Bladow!” He’s collaborated with everyone from Puff Daddy (“The Body Rock”) to Ozzy Osborne (“This Means War”, which was basically just Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” with a muted hip-hop beat and some I’ll-get-you-dirty-rat rantings from Busta), from Janet Jackson (the sexy “What’s It Gonna Be?!”) to Erykah Badu (“One”).
Busta Rhymes became an unstoppable record-selling force, but never neglected the kids who love videos; these singles were often accompanied by wild and inventive Hype Williams videos, with Busta portraying Day-Glo-painted savages and fly pimps and white dudes and himself, all with his trademark grin and trademark grimace set on an A-B repeat loop. He’s also appeared in films like Higher Learning, Shaft, and Finding Forrester. Pretty busy and high-profile for a guy who kept warning us every year that everything was going to end in 2000.
But then 2000 came, and went, without any kind of Extinction Level Event occurring. There were mumbles that maybe, with no end-of-millenium Anarchy actually going on, Busta had fallen off a little bit. So he signed with Clive Davis’ J Records and got to work on Genesis. Get it?: rebirth, a new day, reinvigoration. The only problem is: Busta Rhymes is too busy being Busta Rhymes.
You get this from the first thing on the album: a phone call from Clive telling Busta to “keep it grimy” and “keep it gutta”. This is kind of funny to people inside the music industry, perhaps, but not as funny to anyone on the outside—and no listener wants to be reminded that he or she is firmly on the outside of the process. My heart leapt up at the end of that segment, when Busta says, “No question. Let’s get straight to it”. Yeah! That’s it! Get rid of all the bullshit and kick out the jams for realz! But of course that doesn’t happen. Instead, like always happens, we have a second intro, this time from ghetto superstar Rudy Ray Moore, also known as Dolemite. Not only does this go on for too long, and not only is it just kind of wack, but it underscores the idea that there is a wall somewhere, and that Busta Rhymes is a step removed from his own product. Track two starts kind of promisingly, with the brave “I’m about to Picasso a new picture for you mu’fuckers!”, but it turns out to be just another version of “Everybody Rise”, which is just another intro track recycled at this point since 1998.
The first new idea here is “As I Come Back”. This would seem to be the perfect marriage: the Neptunes’ electrofunk together with the big huge personality of Busta Rhymes. Hell, he doesn’t even rhyme here—he just ends each line with a Cowardly Lion growl—kinda brilliant, no? Well, actually, no: his lyrics just aren’t up to the futuristic bounce of the track: “Talk that shit to me girl / What’d you say? / Strip for me / I got the camcorder shortie make a flick for me / And how wide your ass can split for me” aren’t really lyrics so much as they are the things you say along with a beat while you’re trying to write your real lyrics. Forget the misogyny and posing for a second—if you can—this song doesn’t work because it’s too easy, too pre-programmed, too Busta.
Same goes for many of the songs here: “Shut ‘Em Down 2002” is a remake of the Public Enemy song done as a tribute, but what kind of tribute to PE is it if you take all the politics out and replace them with self-referential (-reverential) pap? Sure, it sounds like Busta Rhymes, but it’s more like the idea of being a public figure has gotten in the way of what used to be a wicked flow with unusual and cool sentiments being screamed at the top of his lungs until us fuckers heard him.
Not every song is ruined by lyrical slackness: I love the hanging keyboard Gary Numanism of the title track: “While we continuously stay sculpturin’ bombs / Love unconditional greetings with openin’ arms / For my worthy niggaz I’ma die tryin’ for y’all / With the blessing of an angel’s tear cryin’ for y’all”—the song just never resolves, thanks to canny rebel production by Dilla. The first single, the Dr. Dre-produced “Break Ya Neck”, is an instant classic just based on sheer momentum and opening vocal line, “The only thing you need to do right here / Is nod your fuckin’ head”; but damned if all it does is just prove that Busta Rhymes can do a great Eminem impression. Mary J. Blige classes up “There’s Only One” and actually pushes Busta with her soulful backing, and we get two big bong-hits from Rah Digga, NJ’s finest working rapper—don’t sleep on Rah Digga, people, she’s huge. And Michelangelo’s production on “You Ain’t Fuckin’ Wit Me” is beautiful and perfect and funny with its synthesized tubas and piano lines.
But there are just some heard-it-before moments here that are inexcusable. “Ass on Your Shoulders” is not only silly and sexist, but also extremely derivative, sounding like it was boosted directly from Outkast’s “let’s sound exactly like P.Funk” notebook.The stupid “Wife-in-Law” should serve to keep women away from Busta for all time, considering how joyless and anti-woman he makes sex sound. Perfectly good tracks are dusted by lazy-ass lyrics, and the imperfect tracks just sound like old cans of Who-hash. And “Pass the Courvoisier” sounds funky on the verses, thanks to its producer, one P. Diddy, and the many layered samples he packs in here. Call him whatever you want, but P. Diddy isn’t any better a rapper than Puff Daddy was back with Mase or Sting or Biggie or really anyone. For God’s sake, he rhymes “Sean John” with “Don Juan” and “King Kong” . . . weren’t those last two used in the first rap song ever? This inattention to details like, oh, words, is seems to rubbed off on Busta. There’s little wordplay and even less attention to communicating anything other than the same blingy bling that has infected rap like cancer in the last 10 years. And then there’s the fact that there are more “bitches” and “niggaz” and “motherfuckers” here than on anything in my recent memory. Funny for about 30 seconds, and then just sad.
I’m just wondering where Busta Rhymes went. He’s not really here on this album . . . I mean, his voice appears to be here, but there’s no there there anymore. It’s getting harder and harder to think that Busta Rhymes exists anymore. He’s been replaced by the idea of Busta Rhymes, which happens to have its own career. He’s acting out the role of “Busta Rhymes”, but he’s forgotten how to actually be himself. Or, to skip the armchair psychology: the lyrics on this album are weak and detract from the music, so it’s therefore not a very great album. State-of-the-art? Yeah. But that says a lot more about everyone else than about this record.