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Or maybe not
Two years ago almost to the day, Swizz Beatz crowned Busta Rhymes King of New York onstage at Hot 97’s Summer Jam in the single least defensible display of rap bravura I’ve ever witnessed. Busta was in that show’s de facto headliner spot (second-to-last, since everyone leaves when the last act is on), and he built up to his big coronation by trotting out every NY rap legend he had in his rolodex for one song each: Wu-Tang, Rakim, Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, Q-Tip. But not even the goodwill he earned with those twenty minutes of euphoric stadium-rap nostalgia could make the coronation any less ridiculous. Busta Rhymes is not made of kingly material. At his creative and commercial peak, he was basically a really funny guy who wasn’t afraid to dress in stupid costumes in his videos and who could rap really fast. He was impossible to hate, but nobody expected him to personify an entire city’s hopes and dreams, either. The Big Bang, the album he was pushing at that show, was meant to change all that. It didn’t. It failed. That album, Busta’s first for Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label, played host to a series of garbage-ass singles (one of which, the godforsaken “Touch It” remix, stayed in heavy radio rotation way, way past its sell-by date). And right around the time it was failing utterly to turn Busta into a Serious Rap Star, Busta himself worked hard to become one of rap’s most loathsome figures. He got himself arrested for some of the dumbest, least sympathetic reasons ever (beating up a teenager who’d spit on his car, beating up a driver who’d demanded the wages he was owed), he refused to talk to police after an assistant was killed on his video shoot, and he gave nonsensical vein-popping interviews to anyone who would listen. For a minute there, it looked like Busta Rhymes might become rap’s first roid-related heart-attack fatality. Now, all of a sudden, he’s back, and he might even be that really funny fast-rapping guy he once was.
Actually, Busta’s reemergence isn’t all that sudden at all. Over the past year or so, he’s been making a quiet return to the guest-rapper circuit he once ruled, delivering the sort of raspy double-time workouts I never thought I’d hear from him again. And even though he never quite distanced himself from his recent Incredible Hulk persona-switch on tracks like T.I.’s “Hurt” and Freeway’s “Walk Wit Me” and DJ Khaled’s “I’m So Hood” remix, he did accomplish the way more important goal of reminding everyone that he could actually rap. More recently, he showed up on “Head Banger,” a track from the Grand Hustle ranter Alfamega, and delivered an astounding breakneck yammer of a verse that must’ve left at least one studio mic dripping with saliva. If Busta manages to shake off all the bullshit of the past couple of years, if he fully rediscovers his strengths as a rapper, we might be looking at one of rap’s great comeback stories. It might happen, and it might not, and we’re in the rare position of seeing a rapper contemplating the two diverging paths his career could take. Busta’s got two new singles out right now. One of the represents everything that’s right about Busta Rhymes, and one of them represents everything that’s wrong. We’ll see which self he picks.
Actually, I’m being melodramatic. “We Made It,” Busta’s new Linkin Park collabo, isn’t quite the worst thing Busta could possibly do. I mean, at least he worked with a rock group who has some idea how to make room for rappers; it’s not like he jumped on a track with Seether or something. “We Made It” makes for vaguely OK sports-highlights music, something the inexplicable Lamar Odom cameo in the video drives home. And I like the one scene in the video where Busta stands at the top of a muddy hill and all these people run up at him; someone needed to remake the “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” video for really, really dumb kids, I guess. But the song is one of those by-the-numbers collaborations that plays toward the strengths of exactly none of the people involved. Busta’s never been any good at self-serious motivational-speaker talk, and Linkin Park’s never been any good at chest-thumping chariots-of-fire ragers. Busta needs adrenal humor to make his shit work, and Linkin Park needs wilted vulnerability, which is to say that these guys should never, under any circumstances, work together. And to make matters worse, Mike Shinoda actually manages to deliver a verse more direct and powerful than anything that Busta can muster, which just makes me embarrassed for everyone involved. “We Made It” is a total obvious bid for crossover acceptance, and it might even work, but it loses everything good about Busta in the process.
Everything good about Busta is firmly on display, though, in Busta’s other new single, “Don’t Touch Me (Throw Da Water On Em).” The beat, from Sean C and LV, is pretty much just a barely-there bongo-ripple and a hint of stand-up bass, which gives Busta plenty of room to go absolutely berserk. Which he does. Honestly, I didn’t even have any idea this guy was still capable of this sort of sustained galloping fast-rap silliness. “Don’t Touch Me” is a song about pretty much nothing, and I can’t think of one line worth quoting, but any line I could quote wouldn’t tell you anything about his intricately tangled but breathlessly hard delivery. I mean, he’s screaming at us again! I love the part where he pretends to run out of breath, pants for a couple of seconds, and then takes back off again. In the video, he’s back in cartoonish form, returning to his old fisheye-lens theatrics and rocking a series of insanely ridiculous costumes, my favorite being the old-school soul singer with the silk shirt and the giant pompadour. The track’s obligatory posse-cut remix has one of the weirdest lineups in recent memory, but it totally works, mostly because every last one of them goes nuts. Alongside the usual weed-carriers, we get Game and Nas and Lil Wayne and Big Daddy Kane? Um, OK! I’ll take that! “Don’t Touch Me” isn’t going to make Busta into the king of anything, but it knocks hard. Busta was at his best when he was making tracks like that, and maybe he can get there again. Maybe he’ll even sell a few albums in the process.
It’s not like the cheesed-out nu-metal “We Made It” Busta can’t coexist with the playful speed-rapping “Don’t Touch Me” Busta. Even back when he was good, Busta was making tone-deaf entreaties to his white frat-boy base; he did, after all, make that one song with Ozzy Osborne. And all credible sources indicate that he’s still completely batshit-ass insane; seriously, I know people who could tell you stories. So I’m not going to tell him what to do. I just know which fork I’d like to see him take.