By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Some hunt for meat, some harvest souls, others get a god complex. In the cipher, of course, where any young blood, Sun, or God worth their rhyme-flow can become a self-made millionaire despite the clear obstacles to class progress suggested by monikers such as Fat Joe, Big Pun, Mystikal, and Busta Rhymes. Back when Busta was in Leaders of the New School, a lot of folk insisted he go solo, never suspecting the real payoff would be the scariest videos of Hype Williams's career: "Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check," "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See," and "Dangerous." Distinguishing between what's digitized and what's Busta in those clips is damn near impossible, since offscreen he always seems to be morphing. In "Dangerous," Hype coupled Busta's natural talent for muggery with some subversive roleplay, producing a freakish whiteface portrayal of a slithering if highly syncopated narc in the same clip where he portrays a blow-outcombed black shogun. Give or take a song or two, anything calling itself a Busta Rhymes album truer than ever with his new Extinction Level Event is welcome primarily for giving rise to more ventures in the form where the brother's total aesthetic of afrodelic couture, spirit possession, and boombastic MCing can be appreciated as a unified funk-theory.
Not that Busta is anybody's Hollywood African just the type of cat who can simulate the movements of every manner of creature who swims, crawls, runs, or dances under the sun. We know hip hop to be full of archetypal negroes staunch representatives of the cultural familiar but not of so many archetypal African spirits. Consider Busta one of those bloods who embodies not just Black culture but Black cosmology someone whose every gesture renders legible the umbilical connection between African men and mud, stars, planets, suns, rivers, trees, demons, dogs, and magic. What made those Hype videos dope was the director's visual acknowledgment of Busta as a protean form of African energy, a shapeshifting, mojo hand dealing, gris-gris bone-rattling furthermucker for whom a fourth wall or a music awards ceremony was merely a command to break space and to break it viciously.
In all of hip hop only Ol' Dirty Bastard rivals Busta for disregarding decorum and the prevailing social order. Both seem possessed by Orisha. Both also display those qualities of animation and spontaneity you see in Chuck Jones and Max Fleischer cartoons, and in the Pentecostal Church when human form gets caught up in the holy ghost of mad polyrhythm. Most MCs are mere vessels for hip hop, conveyor belts for The-Word-made-flesh, but Busta and ODB delve into a deeper and more liberatory well uncut nigga madness. You can't break the space of Black containment unless even the space of Blackness isn't enough to contain you, and if both Busta and ODB seem free from the need to be free it's probably because they both seem descended from the type of negroes who were seen as too unstable to be trusted with a plow. You know: "Just go in the fields and do that wild singing you do."
Unlike ODB, bless the God, Busta doesn't need firewater to promote ancestral recall, but ODB may prove the greater album artist even if he never makes another one, which seems likely as he takes more and more career derailment cues from Flava Flav. Both serve to illuminate that crucial difference between an African who says funny things and an African who says things funny. In other words, where Busta has to maybe launch a polka-dot furball at you to get your attention, ODB is the type of negro you'd be entertained just knowing he was in the building, not least because he doesn't believe that when the show ends, reality-checking begins. Busta's most riveting recorded moment as purely a hip hop MC was of course A Tribe Called Quest's "Scenario" a freestyle so shambolically and dithyrambically memorable that in concert all he has to do is shove the mic into audience airspace to hear himself recited by the multitudes, broken verse for broken verse. At the end of the day, Busta's "Scenario" explosions may be the closest thing in all of hip hop to Charlie Parker's alto break on "A Night in Tunisia."
Sadly, the most mesmerizing track on Busta's third solo album doesn't have him on it. In the ongoing spirit of millennial fever, Busta opens the joint with an eloquently horrific and hokey prophecy-of-doom skit.
Child: Daddy, what's it going to be like in the year 2000? Daddy: Well, sweetheart, for your sake I hope it'll all be peaches and cream but I'm afraid the end-time is near the cataclysmic apocalypse referred to in the scriptures of every holy book known to mankind. It will be an era fraught with boundless greed and corruption where global monetary systems will collapse leaving brother to kill brother for a grain of overcooked rice.. . . Massive earthquakes crack the planet's crust like a hollow eggshell causing unending volcanic eruptions, creatures of the seven seas unable to escape to certain death on land boil in their liquid prison.
But when Busta drops the first actual song, "Everybody Rise,"the results induce drowsiness rather than spiritual uplift even with the kookiest Romantic piano loop in a hip hop song ever. The cautionary title track gives you circus music and George Clinton background vocals but the sum total is not the fire-and-brimstone jeremiad I'm sure Busta intended. Fifteen more so-so tracks follow. Busta's is not a lyricist-lovers' hip hop, nor is he an oilcan-campfire storyteller à la Biggie, a freestylist on a par with Redman, or a roughneck matinee idol like Method Man. We love Busta because he's the personification of hip hop all the fun, noise, machismo, and flava seen walking like a man. Yet heard in mere album form Busta's extra-ness can make you beg for Motrin.
Even so, Busta bridges the ethnological gap between Yankee and raggamuffin rhyme-flow with unparalleled ease, and negotiates a wider range of rhythmic settings funk, cha-cha, dancehall, Latin, Afrobeat with more aplomb as well. His comfort with all manner of hiccuping grooves compels him to adapt to a variety of musical styles, a predilection rare among current MCs. The Afrobeat influence shows up on "Keeping It Tight," a "Soul Makossa"fied revision of "Put Your Hands." A widening of geographic scope marks his Bounce-y duet with Mystikal, "Iz They Wilding Wit Us & Getting Rowdy." "A Bus A Bus" returns to the annoying days of electro, while moves you'll recognize from Tricky (half-time soul guitar) and Timbaland (staggered and staccato drum loop) make "What's It Gonna Be," an alternately frenetic and sugary collaboration between Busta and Janet Jackson, the most musical event on the disc.
Considering the production quality of his debut, The Coming, and the general slambociousness of its follow-up, When Disaster Strikes, it's surprising how underbaked so many of the tracks here sound even when the concepts are live, like the rhyming buried just beneath the beats on "Hot Shit Making Ya Bounce," the sound quality is way shy of banging, most notably on the Black Sabbath interpolation of "This Means War." Forgetting for a moment that this idea was originated and better executed by the Goodie Mob's band on their first tour, the aggression displayed by the garage rejects hired for the event wouldn't rile an airport lounge. Guest star Ozzy Osbourne seems merely melancholy, like nobody thought to lace the M&M jar with batmeat. For what it's worth, Busta does give his all, but in the wake of Puffy & the Foo Fighters and Puffy & Page, faking the rock is just not a hip hop option anymore.
This season also sees the release of Flipmode Squad's The Imperial, long awaited mainly by Busta. As one citizen summed up the disc, Flipmode Squad is a prime example of what happens when "you put your crew on and your crew ain't got nothing to say." Strangely enough, The Imperial's tracks are more tuneful than those on Busta's own meisterwerk, though to no great galvanizing effect, as the assembled team of Rah Digga, Rampage, Spliff Star, Lord Have Mercy, and Baby Sham are hardly the next Wu-Tang Killa Bees. That Flipmode Squad is a better photo op than band should surprise no one. And how Busta can produce a more bangalicious serving of atavistic hip hop next time out is a question best not left to the God.