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The Boston Phoenix Rhymes's Schemes

Busta's Extinction Level Event

By Alex Pappademas

JANUARY 4, 1999:  "There is only one year left."

That's the ominous tag line that kicks off Busta Rhymes's third solo album, Extinction Level Event: The Final World Front (Elektra). One year, as a comically calm sitcom-dad narrator tells us in the opening skit, before Planet Earth faces "the cataclysmic apocalypse referred to in the scriptures of every holy book known to mankind." One year before the collapse of democracy and the advent of worldwide famine and disease, before the earthquakes and the volcanic eruptions, before humanity faces death at the hands of aliens, "bloodthirsty renegade cyborgs," and "horribly disfigured hordes of Satanic killers." One year before your ATM card becomes, like, totally useless.

If 1998 was the year Hollywood tried to destroy the world, in popcorn forecasts like Deep Impact, 1999 is shaping up as the year hip-hop got a piece of the action. From the New Year's Eve atomic blast that opens Method Man's new Tical 2000: Judgment Day (Def Jam) to Busta's "When Cyborgs Attack" scenario, rap's latest catch phrase is "We're all gonna die!" Busta's vision of the Last Days may be rooted in Five Percent Islam, a faith that presages a nasty day of reckoning for most of the people on Earth. But on Extinction, he's less a prophet of doom than a candidate for post-apocalyptic Funky President. The disc's pre-millennial tension is mostly between the beats -- as host of a hypothetical Top 100 Videos Of Man's Last Year on Earth, Busta stares down the century with declarations of global unity, slabs of hot, stuttering robo-funk, and time-honored hip-hop promotionalism of his Flipmode Squad crew (i.e., "Buy these Flipmode Squad solo joints -- before it's too late.").

Busta's an atypical rap celeb, to say the least -- his peers, and closest competitors, are New York MCs like Jay-Z and DMX, who've managed to move plenty of units without really registering as artists or demonstrating the gravitas of actual stars. Busta, who backs up his outlandish public persona with a freaky-precise, gravel-slide rhyme flow, is both. On MTV, he's a born entertainer who flips modes of communication just by showin' up. His videos, for songs like "Dangerous" and "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See," lensed by Belly director Hype Williams, transformed the way rappers moved on camera -- half the hip-hop clips MTV rotates these days borrow either Busta's distinctive physicality, a no-gesture-too-broad body-rocker skank, or the Umbrellas of Cherbourg-meets-Street Fighter visuals Williams used to capture it.

More important, Busta exploits and explodes stereotypes fearlessly, remixing racist notions of black physicality as slippery, self-aware, live-and-direct caricature. Every time he shoves his face all up in a fisheye lens, he becomes the archetypal Scary Black Dude in the Apartment-Door Peephole, a sardonic cartoon smacking the audience silly with its own paranoia. When Busta's onstage -- and he almost always is -- he rolls prejudice, charisma, psycho showmanship, and the sentimentality of a young father who's still somebody's awkward son into one big-ass pop-cultural blunt. Then he lights the fuse.

Extinction's the first Busta disc as big and bold and weird as the man himself, full of bumper-car sound effects and crackling with the best party-chant arcana this side of Outkast's "Rosa Parks." The production -- by Busta's own DJ Scratch and a host of NYC board jockeys -- goes b(l)ack to the future like most drum 'n' bass wishes it could, in quick salvos of Ritalin-candidate beats. "Everybody Rise" lays Busta's dungeon-dragon growl over a hissing backdrop that sounds like DJ Premier transmitting live from Mars, while "Tear Da Roof Off" echoes turntablist Rob Swift's beat-juggling and "Just Give It To Me Raw" compresses Eric B and Rakim's "Chinese Arithmetic" into spring-loaded, tilt-a-whirl dancehall. On "Gimme Some More," Busta murmurs a JBs-derived hook, as a Psycho-esque string sample wanders in and out like the headlights in Anne Heche's rear-view mirror. Cameos are kept to a sensible minimum -- Busta's Flipmode posse, plugging recent and upcoming projects, sounds better than usual, as does No Limit speed-snarler Mystikal.

Nearly every track features some mutation of Missy and Timbaland's signature Virginia bounce, that I-can't-believe-it's-not-jungle booty shake that became the official beat of summer thanks to Aaliyah's "Am I That Somebody." In Busta's world, that rhythm becomes an anti-flow flow, like the drums are pacing a too-small waiting room, and when he throws down his sinew-and-sandpaper patois, it sounds like the future.

That may be the point -- Extinction fast-forwards past Armageddon to get with tomorrow's funk today. As astral-jazz huckster Sun Ra's acolytes put it years ago on Ra's Space Is the Place, "It's after the end of the world! Don't you know that yet?" Busta poses in some distinctly Ra-like vestments in the liner-note photos, and maybe that's where his future lies -- having already made the pop charts his playground, he'll be an intergalactic toastmaster, leading hip-hop on a loopy path to the stars.

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