Photo: Flo Ngala
Busta Rhymes On Being In A "Beautiful Space" & Bringing Together Generations Of Hip-Hop Artists On 'Extinction Level Event 2'
There is really no comparing legendary New York rapper Busta Rhymes. With his dizzying flow, mind-blowing lyrics and commanding voice, he's been shaking up hip-hop culture since 1991 when he stole the show on A Tribe Called Quest's iconic posse cut "Scenario."
With Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God, his ninth solo studio album out now, the global consciousness has finally begun to process what his music has been telling us all along: The system is broken and disaster is imminent. While 2020 has brought overwhelming death and suffering worldwide, it has also come with much needed reevaluation of the way things are. Similarly, the 22-track opus (the Deluxe Edition delivers 30 tracks!) is a hard-hitting cinematic firestorm of destruction; a reflection of our chaotic reality, but not without moments of vulnerability, love and celebration. Rhymes not only showcases his seemingly unlimited creative and vocal power, but that of other greats, including Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar, and Rick Ross .
The album comes 11 years after 2009's Back On My B.S. partly because it took the rapper a "a long time to figure out the right support system to nurture and nourish the life and the success" of it. Eventually, he found a home for the album at San Francisco's EMPIRE records. But time does not faze Rhymes at all. "You can't put a timeline on greatness," he told GRAMMY.com.
A few weeks after its critically acclaimed release in October, we caught up with the bad ass New Yorker himself to learn more about the creative process and the long journey behind it as well as the collaborators and the spooky album art. We also asked about his legacy and what he sees as the biggest difference between now and 1998 when he released Extinction Level Event: The Final World Front. Spoiler alert: not a lot has changed.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You unleashed Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God on October 30. What has the response of fans and critics so far felt like for you?
Can you tell me what you've been hearing?
I've heard good stuff, that it's hard. For me, it's crazy that it's your first album in 11 years. It feels like you haven't missed a minute, you're just right back in.
Thank you so much. I've been hearing the words classic and masterpiece. For the first time, it's resonating so abundantly in such a short period of time, in just two weeks. This is the third week now and it's just an incredible feeling to hear this as the general consensus. There is just no way to really describe how incredible it is. So, I am floating on all of the plane of energy right now.
This year is crazy and the themes of the album—destruction, plague, chaos—feel very real. I'm really curious about the timeline of the album and what was going through your mind as you were working on it. I'm also wondering what was the spark that first got you back in the studio.
I never left the studio, that's the thing. This has been a narrative of mine since my solo career began, which is why my albums have been called The Coming, When Disaster Strikes, Extinction Level Event: The Final World Front (E.L.E.), Anarchy, Genesis and It Ain't Safe No More. This is just another chapter to the same book of E.L.E., so to speak. I went into this album with the intention of it being an Extinction Level Event 2, but I didn't confirm that probably until about four and a half to five years into the recording of the album once I knew I had the pieces that substantiated and warranted it being called that. I'd never done a sequel album in my entire career.
It was going to be the Extinction Level Event 2 way before COVID-19. I bought the album artwork two and a half to three years prior to the COVID shutdown. I include all 10 pieces of art in the album packaging of the CD booklet, and same with the vinyl. I met the young lady, an artist by the name of Chanelle Rose, through Swizz Beatz and the No Commission movement, which is pro-artists—the mantra is "for the artists by the artist." Swizz curated this initiative and always would introduce me to different incredible artists. When he introduced me to Chanelle Rose's work, it was about four years ago. I fell in love with what I was seeing from her immediately, and I bought the 10-piece collection from her. It took her a year to make it; one piece takes two months because she draws it with a ballpoint pen. It's just incredible what she does, I couldn't believe it.
When I saw these big skeleton figures with these masks on them, obviously, at the time when I purchased the art collection in it, there was no COVID issue. It was speaking to me in a whole 'nother way about what the corrupt politicians should truly look like when you strip the flesh off of them. They're all in masks, and they all have these agendas that have never really benefitted my people. The insensitive evil and wickedness that plays a significant role to the oppression of my people and a lot of other people. That has been the ongoing narrative since the beginning of time, since the United States was born. The masks always deceived the sh*t they're doing to everybody else, that they're protecting themselves from. That's metaphorically what the pictures said to me.
I thought that those were the perfect images for Extinction Level Event 2 and then the irony of it is COVID happened and now everybody's being [told] to wear masks. That felt prophetic. That reassured me all the more to why I needed to really dive into bringing the album home as we were going into the second phase of the recording process.
That's really such a journey. When did you first start working on the songs for this, and when did you wrap up?
I started in 2009, and I wrapped up sometime in August 2020.
How do you feel like you shifted during the process of making this project?
I think for the first time in this career of mine, I've gotten to a place of comfort where I've been able to feel good enough about sharing things on a personal level and in a vulnerable way that I've never had prior to this album. It took years for me to get to that place and once you find that it's a very fulfilling thing to be able to share. You help remind people that they're not alone in these realities that a lot of us are never and will never be exempt from going through. It also reminds people that it's okay to talk about it. I think a lot of the times, especially as Black men, we don't get the opportunity to really be allowed to share when we're hurting or when we are afraid or when we are in need of help.
I think even more so now than ever, with everything that everybody is going through, we need to make a conscious effort to show people it's okay to say, "I need somebody to help what I'm going through right now." Or "I just need some support. I'm a little insecure about something. I just need someone to listen." I wanted to share a lot of that. I think that comes with maturity, with growth, with being a man, and understanding what it is to be a man as opposed to thinking you're one. A lot of times people think they're grown men and they still have a lot of learning left to do before they can actually walk in that space. They tell you that you were a man legally when you're 18. That's such a lie.
I'm just in a really beautiful space, still a work in progress. I think we never completely figure it out. While we're learning as we go along, we still also got to be great listeners and that's where I'm at in my life. I'm always willing to learn, and to teach and share, and that's what I'm trying to give through this music and through this album, Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God. We need to have a good balance of informative content, and we also still need to remember what it is to laugh, live, love and learn and have some fun. We need to recharge because being in the battlefield dealing with this crazy sh*t every day, we need to go back home relaxed and refueled so we can get back in to it with the energy and strength that we need to continue to fight the good fight.
On the album, you brought in some of the younger rap and R&B greats, like Kendrick Lamar, Rapsody and Anderson .Paak. What was it like working with them and was it an intentional mentorship sort of decision?
I definitely didn't do it because I was mentoring any of them. I did it because I'm a huge fan of all three of them. They would give me sh*t that I felt like I was hugely inspired by. They're such incredible talents. I mean, when Rapsody and I did ["Best I Can"] together [about a troubled relationship between a father and a mother], she gave me the song with the track and the verse all ready. She created the whole creative direction, which was genius because I'm the one with the kids and she doesn't have any. It was just beautiful to see her look at things from a perspective of being on the outside looking in, but being so close to the situation in real life. That she can actually illustrate a perspective about this reality, that is one that has never been illustrated in this way on a record—since the beginning of hip-hop's birth and conceiving, we always hear about how the fathers are deadbeats.
I grew up without my father, but you never hear about how a woman is apologetic for all of the vindictive things she did to a man that's trying to actually be a damn good father. Through all of the humiliation and disrespect, he actually still sticks it out and makes sure that nothing comes between him and his child. That's important and needs to be heard and it's a reality that a lot of fathers needed to hear and a lot of women needed to hear. It creates a dialogue that I think is needed.
Kendrick Lamar is my favorite MC in the world. Anderson .Paak is one of the most brilliant minds that I've ever met as an MC and as a R&B artist, as a performing artist. All three of them are like super powers to me. I wasn't trying to mentor them because they are so great. If there would be any mentoring that would be needed, it would have to come from them.
And to have an opportunity to work with them and with my alumni of artists and artists that are elder statesmen to me, like Bell Biv Devoe and Rakim. I wanted to show the world that I got three incredible generations of our culture on one body of work. Look how incredible and amazing we all can sound together, as long as we continue to bridge these gaps. That's what I was trying to do, show the world that we are the timeless greats. You can't put a timeline on greatness.
"You can't put a timeline on greatness."
That's real. What do you see as the biggest differences between 1998 when you dropped Extinction Level Event: The Final World Front and now?
The biggest difference between then and now, to me, is technology. A lot of the sh*t I was talking about then and a lot of the issues that we faced as a people then, none of that has changed now. We're still in the same horrible crisis of a situation as far as Black and brown people are concerned. I think the difference, in a way, now is that it is a little more directly affecting white people in a negative way. Because of this COVID thing and the narrative of it and the shutting down of the entire planet, it has now compromised the comfort level of every nationality and race.
Unfortunately, the reality is a lot of things that were the same then have probably even gotten worse now. We didn't have social media in 1998. [Now, on social media] you can watch Black people getting killed every two to three days and there's no accountability. The worst part about it is that we didn't have these phones where we could watch this person getting killed on film, on repeat, from an uncensored Instagram post. We only saw it on the news. The kids are seeing this around the clock. It's an unbelievably unfortunate crisis as a result of technology and the systematic f***ery that has been implemented by design, by the powers that be. So again, this never changed, this is what it's been since the beginning. It's just magnified with how it's being put in our faces and how it is completely shifting the conscious and the subconscious thought processes. It has given birth to generations of valueless perspectives on life, as the generations are born into seeing this sh*t as a normalized thing. It's horribly unfortunate.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
That's a good question because I got so much left to do. [Laughs.] I don't know, because I have huge plans to do so many things outside of music that will contribute in a major way to the legacy I would love to leave. But as far as music is concerned, I want my legacy to be that I am held in a godly regard when it comes to being an artist; A significant contributor to the culture and a true MC and a profound climate shifter of the culture. And one of the best to ever do this sh*t. If I left out anything, I'll let you fill in the blanks. [Laughs.]