‘Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God’: Busta Rhymes Creates a Soundtrack for the End of the World
Rappers make a lot of wild claims about their accomplishments, success and status, but when Busta Rhymes calls himself “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper,” we are inclined to believe him. Often imitated, always working, and seldom if ever matched, Busta’s work ethic and his incredible output makes him a standard bearer in the rap community unlike almost any other. And yet, it’s been almost a decade since the release of his last full-length album — which was released for free on Google Play and is unavailable on most streaming services — and much longer than that since his true commercial (and possibly creative) heyday. But thankfully, Busta’s abilities as a lyricist and a performer are as sharp as ever, evidenced by the consistency and quality of “Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath Of God.”
As a sequel to his 1998 masterpiece, “The Wrath Of God” showcases both Busta Rhymes’ growing maturity and his commitment to the fatalistic worldview that he pinned to a nonstop string of hits since the earliest days of his career. The release also included a “Reloaded” version that followed just days after the original album dropped on Oct. 30, adding three more new tracks and “Calm Down,” a single he recorded in 2014 with Eminem. More dense than his previous material without as many of the pop earworms to let off steam or lighten its weighty subject matter, the record arrives right on time to assess current events and articulate the mood of the country, but the sum total of that effort is a bit less fun than casual fans and even longtime followers might enjoy.
Admittedly, as a member of the playful, provocative rap group Leaders of the New School, it seemed as though Busta’s doomsday prepping was just a bit — or at least something to be ignored or skipped past on his albums while scanning for hits. Thankfully, those hits were plentiful, so the quiet evolution of his titles, from “The Coming” to “When Disaster Strikes” and on through “Anarchy” and “Genesis,” ultimately meant less than the sum of those album’s considerable parts. But listening to “The Wrath Of God,” what’s immediately clear is not only did he mean every word of these apocalyptic prophecies, but the world seemingly had time to catch up and fulfill them one by one. He chronicles the changes in the album’s intro, not just discussing his own growth but cataloguing the signs that reminded him that his vision was correct, and it was coming.
Some of these markers are traditional Illuminati-type conspiracy theories and others are slightly funnier moments in the zeitgeist (he references the black presidents in both “Deep Impact” and the movie “2012” as evidence of their prescience), but with his wordplay and perspective, even the silliest lyrics are absolutely mesmerizing. The fact that the previous generation’s favorite rapper’s favorite rapper Rakim joins him for a verse — just on the intro — indicates that Busta has lots to say, and is taking no prisoners, especially when the music transitions from the kind of vibe sample he’s become synonymous with to an extended loop of Ahmad Jamal’s “I Love Music,” the song Nas used for his anthemic “The World Is Yours.”
If the record’s producers seem to have been lifted directly from the same era as the original “Extinction Level Event,” they don’t all deliver the same kind or quality of work they might have then. Swizz Beatz’ output has been repetitive and wildly uneven in the last few years, but “The Purge” lasts just over a minute and sets an invigoratingly paranoid tone using test patterns and alarm samples over a military cadence. The late J Dilla’s music beneath “Strap Yourself Down” feels like a greatest-hits package of his signature sounds, featuring succinct, unforgettable melodies, and later, over-mic’d, lurching drums, as Busta and producer Pete Rock try to do his work proper justice. Given their success together on the “Ante Up (Remix),” easily one of the most energizing hip-hop songs ever recorded, it makes perfect sense for Busta and M.O.P. to reunite on “Czar,” but Rockwilder’s production unfortunately sounds too specifically linked to his own heyday, forcing the rappers to propel the track when his string sample fails to make an impression.
But track 5, “Outta My Mind,” showcases what Busta Rhymes does that almost no one else can. Sampling the clacking drumbeat of Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison,” Busta bends that Bomb Squad production — and the iconic chart topper it accompanies — to fit his unpredictable flow and indefatigable rhymes, creating a song that of course evokes its original musical source, while also creating a brand new, irresistible, danceable rhythm. Just like “Gimme Some More” uses Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” score or “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” transforms a Seals and Crofts bass line into a runway for his hypnotic verses, “Outta My Mind” doesn’t just point at the outfield and tell the listener where he’s planning to hit the ball, he puts them on his shoulder and takes them for a ride while he runs the bases. “Calm Down,” an addition for the deluxe “Reloaded” version of the album but originally recorded six years ago, similarly reinvents a familiar sample in a completely different and new way, turning the “Harlem Shuffle” sample so memorably used at the beginning of House of Pain’s “Jump Around” into a wall of sound over which Busta confidently holds court.
Deeper into the album, “Boomp” follows a long history of successful collaborations with DJ Scratch, and this one is no exception, and the only thing wrong with “True Indeed,” Busta’s first official track produced by the great DJ Premier, is that it’s not long enough. “Oh No” feels like the only track made with any consideration for the current musical climate, but its haunting trap beat provides a perfect backbone for verses from Busta that fill every available space with rhymed words. More conventionally, “Where I Belong” reunites Busta with Mariah Carey, and it more or less duplicates their work on the 2002 single “I Know What You Want,” down to an almost identical melody. And despite indications that somehow Busta held onto an unheard verse from late rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard, with whom he very memorably dueted back on “The Coming,” the track “Slow Flow” actually cribs a healthy portion of one of ODB’s verses from “Brooklyn Zoo” over a beat that suitably matches the two rappers’ idiosyncratic flows.
Meanwhile, guest appearances by Anderson .Paak, Kendrick Lamar and especially Rapsody further indicate Busta’s industry influence — not just to have the muscle to enlist such heavy hitters, but to go toe-to-toe with them, making them (and himself) better as they trade lyrics. The track featuring Rapsody, “Best I Can” is especially interesting because the female rapper never shrinks from an opportunity to command a track, but what she does here is strangely aggrandizing of her collaborator as both of them, playing a split couple sharing custody of their son, reflect on his efforts to be a responsible parent, and hers to make that difficult for him. But ultimately, the album’s biggest virtue may also prove to be its biggest obstacle — a sometimes oppressive density of subject matter and content that is absolutely worth exploring, but difficult to get through without more familiar signposts of his work, the party jams and more lighthearted fare that lured people to examine his talent in the first place. In which case, “Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God” may not always be fun or easy to listen to, but we are just glad it’s here. If the end of the world needs a soundtrack, this album deserves to be at the top of that playlist.