It’s not that Busta Rhymes wasn’t completely off the meat rack. The man knows how to tear a mic to pieces and he’s not afraid to show it. The Undergraduate Council’s heavily touted party simply had little else going for it. That everyone was packed into an indoor venue made it incredibly difficult even to see the performers. The two hours of opening acts, from breakers to emcees going off the dome and anything else remotely hip-hop, became increasingly taxing.
Harvard’s own Tha League are celebrated for being a charismatic, skilled unit of rappers, and their stage presence and lyrical polish was clear. So was the impact of their homegrown beats (from Dominique C. Deleon ’04), which sound infinitely better coming through a big system than they do on the Veritas Records compilation. But an hour-long set was perhaps too much to expect. If, as they say, they’re just doing their own thing, it’s ambiguous who their ideal audience might be if not Harvard students. Perhaps it wouldn’t matter as much if the hooks, painstakingly crafted as they are, were a little catchier.
Of course, they weren’t really audible to begin with. The acoustics in Lavietes Pavilion forced virtually all the sound into a homogenous muddy wall.
Busta Rhymes, fortunately, isn’t a rapper who needs to yell every rhyme into the mic. The echoes in the room almost worked to his advantage, with each song (in a caricature of his album’s apocalyptic themes) ending in a small explosion. But Busta carried the audience and the show single-handedly. His Flipmode sidekick Spliff Star was a non-factor—Okechukwu “Oke” W. Iweala ’06, who hosted the event, had noticeably better projection and more personality.
Busta himself is an interesting personality, not just because of his “crazy antics” but because he’s one of the scant few rappers from the Native Tongues era who’s made it in the post-Bad Boy age. You might think his success in the past decade has been about keeping a unique style through at least three major iterations of hip-hop, but it’s got more to do with knowing exactly how to get an audience. Few others could go from an old school (or rather, old New School) cut like A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” to the postmillennial crunk of Lil Jon’s “Get Low” remix without completely disrupting the vibe. Usually it screams “yes, I am a famous rapper with a long history.”
This time it worked, because Busta Rhymes is an anachronism in rap music, a popular artist who gets by on lyrical skill and wit alone (taking hot beats for granted). Technically speaking, he’s an emcee’s emcee—he spits rhymes with perfect breath control, speeding up and slowing down, stopping and starting at will, lyrically careening all over the beat without losing a drip of flow. And for all his lyrics, he doesn’t say a damn thing, or at least nothing that isn’t needed to rock the stage. Essentially he’s the world’s most unknowingly celebrated battle rapper, taking on all kinds of gangsta themes but ultimately using them to buff his already gleaming skills.
He was good nearly to the point of seeming cynical. Busta and his Squad have clearly rehearsed this show many, many times over. It went without a single hitch, contrived little song interludes and all. People complained that he was being “pissy,” but who expects larger-than-life rappers to get on a stool and pour their hearts out in earnest? Dropping “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” only to stop it two seconds in; making fun of the crowd for being “tired,” blazing through half a verse of “Break Ya Neck” before drifting off into incoherency, swept away by cheering—that was the act. It’s about the only honest show an artist who’s spent his life impressing everyone, yet being mysterious at the same time, could put on.
So for an hour it was exactly what people wanted—no more, no less. Rumors of Busta’s last-minute unwillingness to do the concert were largely moot, as the performance was entertaining, over the top and gave at least the illusion of being spontaneous. It’s too bad we had to feel ever-so-slightly cheated by the whole act, which arrived late and left without wasting any more of its time.