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Millennium Busta

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The Rhymes They Are A'changin': The year 2000 brings out the prophet in rapper Busta Rhymes.

The coming of Y2K has Busta Rhymes seriously worried on 'Extinction Level Event'

By Gina Arnold

MULTICULTURALISM is a great modern concept. Without it, many Americans would not appreciate the qualities of other countries. But have you ever thought about how other countries are induced to appreciate ours? To me, the ads I saw in the Paris Metro 10 years ago offer an instructive lesson in how we look from afar. The ads were full of Air France billboards depicting scary-looking B-boys in gang colors, carrying huge beat boxes over their shoulders, welcoming Parisians to New York.

Apparently, to the French, this rather menacing image was the height of American romanticism. And it still is, to judge by the popularity of rap star Busta Rhymes in Europe. Rhymes' last LP, The Coming, was even bigger in Europe than it was in America.

This year's follow-up album, Extinction Level Event: The Final World Front (Elektra), looks like it will be just as successful. But sadly, the album's version of rap is as much of an erroneous stereotype as the aforementioned ad campaign. Neither one is a really accurate portrait of the best things about hip-hop.

Barring a lengthy intro about pending world destruction, for example, practically the first three discernible words on the album are "niggas," "bitches" and "muthafuckas." Now, you can either think that the use of these words is totally offensive or recognize it as the biggest cliché going. Rhymes clearly means the shout-outs ironically, but didn't he watch the final Seinfeld episode? Doesn't he know that irony is dead?

In that way, as in others, Rhymes seems behind the times. Musically, his work is sadly uninventive, particularly compared to artists like Lauryn Hill, Timbaland, even Jay-Z or Method Man. Vocally, he's got a unique and recognizable rap style, but his message is a bit of a muddle.

What's saddest about Busta's pose as bad-ass rapper is that he began life as something completely different. In 1990, he belonged to the Leaders of the New School, a group that, along with A Tribe Called Quest and KRS-1 Boogie Down Productions, had an entirely different, much more visionary, idea of where rap was going.

The Leaders were a much heavier act, bent on taking rap away from gangstaland. But instead of delving into the more spiritual side of black culture, Rhymes, as a solo act, became a cartoon character: hip-hop's answer to Rob Zombie.

With his wild dreads and mouth full of gold, he looks like a caricature. His videos are full of scatological references and cartoonoid imagery, the province of the 14-year-old boy.

The result of playing up this image has been phenomenal success. And happily, there's no question that Rhymes' stance is meant as a comment on the twisted nature of the rapper's art of exaggeration. At one point on the record, there is a long, dumb "conversation" about drugs and rap music between a kid and his dullard parent.

On another between-song intro, Rhymes spoofs a boastful rapper whose pick-up line gets so absurd that he finally starts saying things like "I'm so rich I can hire people to fuck bitches for me!"

And yet, although Rhymes is verbally terribly clever--and incidentally can truly rhyme like a beast--his over-the-top Y2K doomsday philosophy and intricate narratives become boring over the course of a 70-minute album, partly because none of his songs are very catchy. "Everybody Rise," which lists many cities in America and exhorts everyone to rise, is one of the peppiest numbers.

The other songs lag in tempo or use unmelodic, tinkly samples that sound remarkably like the soundtracks for video games. No doubt Rhymes is keeping it real in his own inimitable way, but clownishness is the overall tenor of the album. Rhymes' more serious comments get lost in the mix.

RHYMES IS ALWAYS at his best when he's doing his rapid-fire rapping backed by his Flipmo Squad, as on the tracks "Against All Odds" and "Gimme Some More." In its lyrics, Extinction Level Event switches between apocalyptic comments on the perils of the millennium and silly sex songs like "Just Give It to Me Raw" and "Hot Sh** Makin Ya Bounce," but the best tracks are the collaborations.

The record includes guest slots by Mystikal, Janet Jackson and Ozzy Osbourne--an impressively eclectic trio. The Mystikal track, "Iz They Wildin Wit Us & Gettin Rowdy Wit Us" is the best; the Ozzy Osbourne one--not surprisingly--the worst.

The album ends with "The Burial Song," an apparently serious lecture in which Rhymes babbles on about the millennium. "In order for us to continue to build, we must destroy, and unfortunately, in the process, many of us will be liable candidates of being destroyed!" he chants portentously. "But in the bigger scheme of things, we must defend what we all collectively identify with as the truth and with what is right."

That's all well and good. But what does it mean? I doubt Rhymes himself, caught up in the excitement of talking a million miles an hour, really knows. Busta Rhymes is definitely one of the great rap stars of the last few years, but whether he's an artist or an operator is still open to question. No wonder the French love him so--they adore that kind of ambiguity.

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From the February 4-10, 1999 issue of Metro.

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