Busta Rhymes' solo debut "The Coming" turns 20 today.
Like many others who grew up long after the Native Tongues era of NY rap, my first exposure to a young Busta Rhymes came on A Tribe Called Quest’s bombastic single “Scenario.” The Low End Theory closing track featured Rhymes’ group Leaders Of The New School (who along with Tribe, De La Soul, Black Sheep, and Jungle Brothers formed the NT collective) in a cypher-esque sequence of oneupmanship that concluded with one of the greatest verses ever laid to wax. Phife Dawg, Charlie Brown, Dinco D, and Q-Tip’s bars were slick, savvy, and witty in their own right, but whereas they blended themselves into the track’s infectious drum groove like chameleons on vibrantly-patterned wallpaper, Bussa Buss morphed into a “Dungeon Dragon” and burned the whole place to the ground.
Busta’s outlandish vocal inflections, tongue-twisting abilities, and sheer timbral formidability were apparent from the start, leading to jealousy from the other members of LOTNS, and eventually, their breakup. Brown and Dinco faded into obscurity, but Busta was only getting started. Three years after the group’s swan song, T.I.M.E., and exactly 20 years ago today, he began his solo career with The Coming, an album whose title reflects the force-of-nature-style impact he was about to have on the hip hop.
Also encompassing some vague plot line about the apocalypse (something like a "second coming" narrative that concludes climatically with a sample of operatic rap mainstay "O Fortuna"), The Coming is where Busta shed the confines of his former surroundings and became a true larger-than-life entity of his own. The album doesn't offer much in the way of storytelling or thematic specificity-- both of which were key to Native Tongues' style-- but its lack of substance and depth is almost totally overshadowed by personality and vibrant production. After a forgettable intro, it begins with two straight tracks of shit talk and punchlines, showing Busta's eagerness to have more than 33% of each track to his boisterous self. Neither Charlie, Dinco, nor probably even Tribe's Tip or Phife could've pulled off these eight straight minutes of punchlines and boasts, but with the help of two catchy hooks, Busta absolutely ripped shit ("type miraculous," as he added on "Do My Thing"). These beats were a bit punchier and more in-your-face than most that LOTNS favored, suggesting that Busta was listening to more of Big L's Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous than either of Tribe or Black Sheep's most recent albums in the months he spent recording The Coming.
The album's front half keeps the intensity ramped up, both via the aforementioned shit-talkers and "It's A Party," which has an airy Zhane chorus that doesn't distract from Busta's earnest flows but does lend his style a bit more commercial appeal. These approaches were blended and perfected on the iconic single "Woo Hah!! (Got You All In Check)," where his unique rapping ability and pop sensibility converged for the very first time over an equally unforgettable beat. Alternately quavering, bellowing, hiccuping, or cackling, Busta's voice on this track was an instrument of its own, and would go on to influence a whole host of modern rappers' entire vocal approaches. Everything about "Woo Hah!!", from its cartoonish vocals to its quirky Galt MacDermot sample and Hype Williams video (below), was attention-grabbing. That song, more so than anything else on The Coming, was the first taste of the Busta Rhymes that became more popular later in the late '90s: loud, absurd, colorful, bafflingly brilliant on the mic.
The Coming's second half, on the other hand, is a little closer to Busta's roots but also weirder than anything he'd made to date. Half of the last six tracks were produced by The Ummah, an all-star production team comprised of Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and none other than J Dilla, who lent a sound that was similarly jazzy to Tribe's, but substantially trippier. The Tip-assisted "Ill Vibe" could appear on Side B of Midnight Marauders were it not for Dilla's immediately recognizable UFO sirens, and is the most in-line with the rest of The Coming of The Ummah's three tracks. The second, "Still Shining," is centered around Busta's rhythmic interplay with an unorthodox beat and a chaotic hook consisting mostly of ad-libs-- Busta's still rapping like he's battling, but it sounds like he's doing so in a funhouse of distorting mirrors. The ensuing "Keep It Movin" is the second (and better) of two posse cuts, this one still standing as the last time that all of TLOTNS appeared on one record, and somewhat surprisingly Dinco and Charlie add a bit more personality to their deliveries and aren't overshadowed by their former crewmate.
A hour plus of shallow (but engrossing!) battle raps is a tall order for anyone, and while Busta fares better than I think any other contemporary of his could given the same setup, The Coming's only downfall is that its actual lyrics don't match its instrumental and thematic ambitions. This is not to say it doesn't contain some of 1996's most memorable one-liners ("Hot-stepping over shit like Ini Kamoze's, sick lyrics like multiple sclerosis" is a personal favorite), but especially with the Wu-Tang Clan members' solo output in its prime-- Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Liquid Swords, AND Return To The 36 Chambers all dropped in 95-- the album wasn't quite the immersive experience it aimed to be.
What The Coming did achieve was ushering in a new, louder, more garish era of NYC rap that would peak (and arguably conclude) with Puff Daddy and Ma$e's "shiny suit" phase. "Woo Hah!!" was the first Busta video to be directed by Hype Williams, the man behind the most iconic NYC rap videos of the late 90s, and over the course of eleven ensuing videos the pair made, they did more to define the visual style of the the region than anyone else. Just as the legendary "Gimme Some Mo" and "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See" videos went on to eclipse the success of that first Busta/Hype joint, so did his ensuing albums When Disaster Strikes and E.L.E. outsell and arguably outshine The Coming, but Busta's debut is important as a pivotal moment, both in his career and in NY hip hop as a whole. It still bore traces of the down-to-earth grooves of his roots, but its biggest single shows how big personalities and catchy hooks would soon overtake battle rapping and boom bap as New York's bread and butter (see also: "Shimmy Shimmy Ya"). The Native Tongues movement was subsumed back into mainstream NY rap on Busta's back, but not without leaving its distinct trace on its prodigal son, its inside man.