For months, we’ve heard Busta Rhymes talking about how he must “secure the win” for his team with his upcoming comeback album, The Big Bang. It simply means that he can’t be a flop critically, the streets have to embrace it, he must sell a boatload of records and can’t make Dr. Dre look bad for signing him.
Of course, the tragic shooting death of his friend and bodyguard Israel Ramirez during the video shoot for “Touch It” (see “Busta Rhymes Speaks Out About Slaying, Defends Video” ) has understandably overshadowed his music, as have his recent difficulties with some members of the media. But if you look solely at what he’s done musically this year, Busta seems to be right on track, like a pitcher going a strong seven innings.
He’s made noise on the mixtape circuit with a ton of unofficial and official remixes, freestyles and underground bangers like “New York Sh–,” the “State of Grace” remix with Raekwon and “Rough Around the Edges” with Nas. His bread-and-butter pitches, the Swizz Beatz-produced “Touch It” and the “Touch It” remix, have been right on point in the place where Busta has thrived most through the years: the club. And his latest single, “I Love My Chick,” will probably get way more from a pop mainstream audience than the ’hood, but the video has been getting heavy spins on BET and MTV nonetheless.
“All of a sudden I’m hearing people in the streets talking about how Busta’s back,” Dr. Dre recently said in a statement released by his publicist. “In my mind, he never left, and that’s why I wanted to f— with him in the first place. He’s got that drive, and he never stops trying to top himself. Anybody who knows Busta knows that he’s always gonna come with heat.”
So with The Big Bang’s June 13 release date nearing, Busta does have fans and the music industry interested — not exactly the easiest thing to do in the rap world, after a three-year hiatus that followed two albums widely classified as mediocre.
“When you’re in a comfortable space — mentally, physically, financially — you can afford to be more strategic on how you move your chess pieces,” he said about the long album hiatus. “Watch things and analyze things with a much more meticulous point of view. As you grow, you value so much more, you don’t take as much for granted. I felt like this time, while I’m growing and transforming into a new machine, I’ll treat my blessing [musical gifts] with a dedication and commitment that I never treated it with before.”
From the onset of recording The Big Bang, Dr. Dre let Bus know that he wasn’t trying to change him; he wanted the Busta that fans love. And as far out as Busta wanted to go on the mic, Dre had his back — in fact, Dre dipped into his bag of tricks, too.
Take a session they had in L.A. where Dre bought in two buckets — one filled with dirt — and a shovel. Doc asked a studio attendant to bring in some plywood and give him five mics. Dre had an idea for a beat which eventually wound up on the song “Legends of the Fall,” which centers around karma and a rapper coming to grips with the fact that his career is over, and all the cold-shoulder treatment that accompanies it (“N—as ain’t giving a f— about your flow,” Busta raps). The perfectionist producer wound up recording the sound of dirt being shoveled (giving the song its grim cemetery feel) and Busta’s own heartbeat, using both as part of the soundscape along with the famous Dre piano-pounding.
While the mood on that track leans more toward morose, the mirth that you would normally expect from a Dre-and-Busta collaboration is splattered all over “Get U Some,” a celebratory anthem that mashes up West Coast G-Funk and outlandish East Coast brashness. The regal hip-hop must haves — “Money, cars, clothes, sexy broads … mansions, yachts, planes, Phantoms” — are named on the hook like a checklist of what the Aftermath fam advises you to get.
Busta, who claims he feels like a “newborn n—a,” is loud and boisterous, leaving no doubt about where his allegiance lies: “This ain’t J Records/ I’m on Dre records: Aftermath!”
Dre isn’t the only O.G. helping The Big Bang to bang just a little harder: For the first time, you actually hear Stevie Wonder’s original vocals guest-starring on a hip-hop record (as opposed to being sampled). Wonder croons about life struggles on the Sha Money XL-produced “Been Through the Storm.” (A track recorded with Eminem has apparently been cut from the album; see “Busta Making An Even Bigger Bang With Em, ODB, Neptunes, Rick James” ).
“Been through the storm and the pourin’ rain,” Stevie sings on the chorus. “Everything’s still the same/ Can’t control how I feel/ Sometimes it’s hard to keep it real … Everyday, landlord knockin’ down my door … Wonder where my next blessing is coming from.”
“You never get to hear Stevie Wonder on a rap record,” Busta said of the collaboration. “This is the first time it’s even been done. I attribute that to Stevie, 100 percent. When a man could make $25, 30 million off of publishing alone because other artists take his songs and make him go multiplatinum with his own catalog, he ain’t gotta do nothing. He ain’t thirsty to do nothing with nobody; he wanted to do this record with me genuinely. That’s one of the greatest rewards for me, because [he’s] only gonna work with who he feels is credible enough to not only maintain the respect level of how he feels about music, but what he thinks is going to be beneficial to music overall. He doesn’t have to do anything for his own personal benefit no more — he does it if it’s gonna benefit a bigger picture.”
In the verses, Busta walks us through real-life accounts of his strife, and the soul legend helps to illustrate further on the chorus.
“It was a tremendous learning experience for me and a blessing, because he didn’t just do a record with me, he did a record talking about ’hood living,” Bus added. “It’s a straight picture of what the urban life is for most ghetto children that have parents that come from other countries — parents with the concept in their mind of coming to the alleged land of the free and opportunity, seeking refuge for some better life. They get here and realize the hard way that none of these promises are ever fulfilled in the way they are presented. That was one of the situations I thought would be dope to address, because I was one of those kids; my family is Jamaican. I love this country a lot, but this country misleads a lot.”
“In The Ghetto,” a remake of sorts of Rick James’ “Ghetto Life,” actually features James’ vocals: “When I was a young boy/ Growing up in the ghetto/ Hanging out on corners/ Singin’ with the fellas/ Lookin’ for the cute chicks/ Trying to find a bit of fun/ Looking for some trouble/ Or anyone who’ll give me some.”
The track’s producer, Green Lantern, came across some James vocal tracks he was originally going to remix for a project on Motown Records, James’ former label, and slid them off to Bus. Rather than go the somber route, Rhymes outlines some of the trappings you’ll find in the ghetto, but he also details the romantic concept some have of the streets and how the ghetto actually can help us get through life.
Bus and his good friend Q-Tip voice their disdain at some of the new MCs who aren’t repping correctly on “You Can’t Hold the Torch.” “The game ain’t the same,” Q-Tip quips, with Bus affirming his stance.
“These n—as can’t hold the torch/ So why should we pass it?” both ask later in the song.
As we all know, the day will eventually come when all MCs have to pass the torch, but it looks like that day won’t be coming anytime soon for Bus. He should be able to go into the dugout with his head held high for delivering possibly his premier LP to date, and easily his best since 1998’s Extinction Level Event (The Final World Front). We’ll have to wait a few more weeks to see if fans agree.
“I consciously made an effort with establishing this project on a quality level to give other artists a blueprint to understand how to start making music,” Busta said. “So that not only we get that quality that hip-hop has been missing, but New York can re-establish [itself as] the throne-holders and be able to dictate how the game should go.”