Today we’re going to talk about my favorite rapper of all time, Busta Rhymes. But, before I get into it, there’s a phenomenon in pop culture that I have to address.
There’s a tendency, a temptation, in white people to call the achievements and work of people of color magic or reduce it to raw talent, to imply that there’s no real work or craft involved. We decide Larry Byrd gets to be a hard worker and a tactician. But, Michael Jordan has to be raw talent, despite all the free throws until four in the morning, to help us sleep at night. Ian McKellan and Peter O’ Toole are called master craftsmen in the acting world, whereas Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson have to have so much raw charisma that they don’t “need” to be craftsmen. This kind of ignorance simply decides that “those people” are just “naturally gifted.” There’s a voice of defensive inadequacy in me that sees the incomparable or unimaginable skill of Busta Rhymes and wants to say “magic.”
But to call it magic, to reduce it to some kind of bizarre sorcery is to undercut how incredible and technical Busta’s skill as a rapper really is.
In the Chris Brown song “Look At Me Now,” Busta Rhymes has a verse and it’s one of the single most exciting pieces of music I’ve heard in my whole life. The rest of the song can kinda jump off a cliff, though. The originality or dynamism of Chris Brown’s creative output couldn’t flavor or fit on a slice of toast. The track’s other contributor, Lil Wayne, hasn’t had any kind of exciting lyrical flourish and cleverness since Carter 3.
Guys, after Chris Brown spits room temperature milk onto the track, a little bit of mediocre wordplay and a smattering of fast rap, Busta steps to the mic and says,
“Ay yo, Breezy, let me show you how to keep the dice rolling while you doing that thing over there, homey.”
It’s a challenge. It’s classic chest puff and swagger. It’s a rapper, at the height of his powers, robed in fame and legendary status, stepping down from a throne to address his subjects. And with a small storm of drums, it begins.
The first time I heard the song, I was in a college friend’s dorm, bullshitting. The song meandered through Chris Brown and the conversation in the dorm wandered, until Busta came on. We all got quiet. We all stopped our nonsense talk to take in the human machine gun of joy that “Look At Me Now” becomes a minute and a half in.
Busta is working his ass off in that verse, turning each word into a drum beat, every breath and rattled bundle of rhymes landing like rain on the track.
Busta Rhymes is magic. Real magic, though. The way a deck of cards becomes a flock of doves when the magician condenses seconds and minutes and hours and days and weeks and months and years of white knuckled practice and cultivated skill into a single brilliant effortless instant. Busta Rhymes is a magic show writ large and proud and blisteringly fast.
You don’t see the effort. You see the trick. You see the tiger in its cage until a puff of smoke and then no tiger. You see Busta turn an ok song into a must-hear and make it look effortless.
Watch it here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=hVK7wy0m9wc