Judge Bill Gibron reviews a concert from the only rap artist endorsed by Martha Stewart.
Woo-HAH! Gotta check this out!
For rap purists, there are really only two major categories of acceptable rhyming styles. There's the hardcore gangsta genre, filled with violent images, pure street lingo, and debauched boasts. And then there is pop-oriented passivity, the kind of saccharine shizzle favored by Fresh Princes and Hammering MCs. Though his career has covered every aspect of the music game, from old school hip-hop to the current state of revolving door remixes, Busta Rhymes has always been a performer who's difficult to departmentalize. While he brings his beats and his badass brand of poetry like a regular "G," he can create the perfect pumped-up people-pleasing party anthem as well.
Busta's longevity in a business that always bites back on the hands that fashion it can be attributed to a delicate balancing act between hoodlum and homeboy, novelty and ghetto nasty. Together with his family of performers (known as the Flipmode Squad), Rhymes has been responsible for some of the most memorable hip-hop (and straight-up strange music videos) of the last ten years. In this 2003 live showcase, we witness a veritable greatest hits compilation come to life as Busta, his partner-in-patter Spliff Starr, and DJ Scratchator crank out well-known jams and selected slams from a career filled with ubiquitous music. And while this is a stellar concert experience (something rare in the rap arena), there are a couple of aspects to the performance and the package that will leave some fans a little flustered.
The songs featured on this disc are as follows:
Intercut between the songs are behind-the-scenes sequences. In one, Busta describes his C.L.A.M.P. theory of success (the acronym stands for "Concept, Lyrics, Attitude, Music, and Performance"), while another focuses on his cars and his intake of recreational pharmaceuticals (more on this later).
The first thing one has to say about this Phoenix, Arizona concert is that Busta and Spliff really work overtime to get the audience into the groove. Like a couple of well-choreographed prizefighters, they take the in-the-round stage setting, size up the crowd, and then start swinging—strictly from a lyrical standpoint. With Spliff playing a comic, cocky Jerome to Rhymes's raging Morris Day, this dapper and dynamic duo manage to transform two guys rapping into microphones into a full-on rock and roll show.
Playing his voice like a finely honed instrument, Busta captures the manic energy of his in-studio work (with all its polysyllabic pyrotechnics and rapid-fire ferocity), translating it perfectly into an electrifying symbol of staggering stage presence. When called upon to trip his tongue over the notoriously insane couplets he's created, Rhymes is a fast-talking typhoon. There is even a time or two when Busta flexes his croon and belts out a slightly off-key tune. But for the most part, this is an awesome display of the verbal fireworks that make most rap, and Busta in particular, an incendiary scream from the streets. It's interesting to contrast Rhymes's ragga inspired past (with its obvious Caribbean leanings) to his recent, more mainstream hip-hop flavor. And there are perhaps one too many old school pose-and-boast clichés tossed around by these magnetic musicians. (How many times can you say, "Let me hear you make some noise!" before it loses its meaning?) Still Rhymes's rap skills are always dead-on and his persona is near perfect…
…That is, until Busta starts talking trash about women and championing the "chronic." Now, this is not an anti-drug rant: after all, the hip-hop sphere is dominated by marijuana. It's as big a part of the community and the culture that created this art form as any other aspect. But its prevalence and celebration here raises a slight concern regarding this title. On occasion, the camera crosses over the crowd and the Southwestern suburbia dynamic to Busta's fan base is exposed: young girls—white and black—baseball-cap-wearing guys of multi-ethnicity…and kids…lots of kids. Apparently Rhymes's brand of boastful brashness goes over well with the playground set. And this is what makes it all the more surprising to see Busta joking around with a huge joint in his hand, or praising Spliff Starr for his enormous bags of pot (and his apparent disrespect for authority). Again, this does not mean it's wrong for Rhymes to indulge in dope (he is a mature adult male, he can do what he wants), but the glamorization here is bound to lead some younger fans in a direction they are still too immature to fully appreciate. Yes, ganja has been part of Busta's persona since the beginning. And there is nothing wrong with his desire to smoke, drink, or do whatever. But more so than the swearing, it's this kind of idolized behavior that stains the otherwise unbelievable talent on display here.
It's the same with the "N" word. While it's true that rap and hip-hop culture are drenched in the incessant use of the word, the PC nature of today's society has rendered its utterance shocking instead of symbolic. When Richard Pryor used the word in the '70s, everyone marked it as clever social commentary. Nowadays it's a one-way ticket to unemployment and outcast status. With the MTV-ish bleeping of almost anything controversial in modern media, hearing these cuts as the artists intended them is a little bit affronting at first. And if anyone is sensitive to said racial epithet, then maybe they need to avoid this DVD completely. Rhymes has subtitled this presentation with the incredibly appropriate phrase, "everything remains raw," and truer words have not been spoken. This is one concert and peek behind the scenes that doesn't shy away from any taboo—in action, word or attitude.
All politicized pontification aside, this is still a great DVD concert. From the opening props to Run DMC to the after-show discussion of what it means to be a performer, Busta delivers outright. There may be those who find the clipfest-like cameo raps a little weird (Rhymes performs his portions of other famous rap singles and, then once his part is over, so is the song), and at 88 minutes, the show is a little short. But with its exceptional quality and aural dynamics, Busta Rhymes: Everything Remains Raw is a great addition to any rap fan's collection. On the 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer front, the direct-from-digital-video high-definition image is absolutely reference quality. So crystal clear that you can decipher delicate details in Rhymes's ornate tattoos, and filled with enough heated live-act energy that you can almost feel it coming through the screen, this is the best looking music DVD ever (beating Rush in Rio because of the 16x9 factor). Sonically, there are three choices to pick from—Dolby Digital 2.0, 5.1 and DTS—and, without this critic's ability to hear the DTS, the clear choice is the incredibly immersive 5.1 offering. The 2.0 is very flat and has virtually no depth. In 5.1, the concert literally comes alive.
As for bonuses, Busta gives us a few looks at what goes on behind the scenes, as well as a few more personal moments of reflection. The section entitled "Flipmode Squad" introduces the rest of Busta's partners in rhyme. The "Flipmode Garage" discusses Busta's recent business deal. He now co-owns a custom car shop, making those pimped-out rides that are so popular today. The "Flipmode Fortress" is a quick look at the tour bus. And a photo gallery is fairly self-explanatory. The standard slam against rap and hip-hop artists is that they cannot deliver on stage what they can in studio. And while it's true that Rhymes relies on prerecorded tracks here to make his beat and sample soul music, it's his amazing oral skills and dynamic stage presence that make Everything Remains Raw such a treat. It can be a tad hardcore at times, but that's the way Busta brings it. And who can argue when it's this entertaining?
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