The most difficult thing about putting together this list was deciding whether to pick the song or the video in many of these cases, so both will be touched on considerably. Choosing hip-hop’s greatest video artist of all-time would be a Sisyphean task, but it’s not difficult to admit that Busta Rhymes would at least be in the running. His flow was remarkable even as a Leader of the New School and A Tribe Called Quest associate, but by his solo debut in 1996 he was reinventing everything hip-hop looked and sounded like. Especially the former: Busta’s willingness to make his video image that of a Roger Rabbit-style cartoon character who operates in the real world (or at least a parallel universe where Hype Williams is the supreme ruler and everything is in fish-eye) predates dozens of other auteurs (Tyler, the Creator, for instance) who made a taste for bright colors and ambitions of bizarre grandeur part of the game today.
Most recently, Busta’s career came full circle as he returned to his roots by augmenting an outstanding A Tribe Called Quest reunion album into something closer to legendary and cementing it by making the most explicit statement of last Sunday (Feb. 12)’s Grammys against “President Agent Orange.” Because his career and albums are long and prolific (his debut, follow-up and hugely long third album all bowed in 1996, 1997, and 1998 respectively), there isn’t an obvious, consistent classic in the bunch. Maybe this newfound political inspiration will help one of the greatest rappers finally make a full-length worthy of his talent, but for now, let’s check out what an amazing highlight reel he’s managed without one.
His verse on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” (The Low End Theory, 1991)
Largely considered one of hip-hop’s greatest posse cuts, “Scenario” has few challengers to that title for a reason. Loaded with memorable, oft-quoted moments (Phife busting a nut inside your eye, Charlie Brown’s “Who’s that? Brooooown” intermission), many still belong to the big finale, a hyperactive, jubilant verse bursting from a raspy, dancehall-influenced 19-year-old who already went by one of rap’s greatest monikers. Nicki Minaj and Barenaked Ladies alike have ripped memorable lines from Busta’s “Scenario” verse for their own career highlights. The only question is why did his own debut take him five years?
“Woo Hah! Got You All in Check” (The Coming, 1996)
Some artists fall in love with the camera, but it’s specifically the fish-eye lens that won Busta’s heart, turning his visage into that of a human funhouse mirror, exaggerating his facial expressions, his dreads, his crazy outfits into something as warped and fantastical as his motormouthed, rogue-rudeboy flow. And musically, “Woo Hah!” matched the bug-eyed feel of its own video with a wayward, avant-jazz beat and jokey, putty-like bass line — Busta’s first hit may be the purest essence of everything that made him one of rap’s most celebrated weirdos.
“Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” (When Disaster Strikes, 1997)
Quite possibly the first major rapper north of the Mason-Dixon to dispense with boom-bap, Busta helped usher in the unique stop-start rhythms that Timbaland would master, changing the entire genre’s sense of flow and rhythm altogether. “Put Your Hands” took a Seals & Crofts sample of all things, extracted something funky and sideways from it, and made it one of the hottest rhythmic beds on the charts or in clubs in 1997, along with his spiritual successor Missy Elliott’s own debut single “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).” Busta of course wrapped his tongue around this one like a frog catching a fly, inventing seven rhymes for the word “studio” and popularizing the phrase “what the dilly yo” to boot. Of equal or possibly greater importance is the Coming to America-inspired video, with Busta decked out in glowing, red tribal paint and being chased by an elephant among its many stunning visuals.
“Gimme Some More” and “What’s It Gonna Be” (from E.L.E.: Extinction Level Event, 1998)
By his third album in just three years, Busta was a bona fide pop star, and the rare rapper to reach his height without compromising his astounding virtuosity even in the eyes of the diehard heads. The two biggest hits from the apocalyptic E.L.E. and their respective videos showcased both sides of his ability to navigate celebrity, at the peak of his popularity no less: the addictive “Gimme Some More” sampled the theme music from Hitchcock’s Psycho and his fastest rapping to make it to radio until “Look at Me Now” in 2011. But the dizzying, kaleidoscopic video is arguably his masterpiece in a tall canon of great clips, with loads of goofy disguises (cowboy, businessman, padded-suit boxer) and a CGI little kid who turns into a blue, mom-terrorizing monster.
“What’s It Gonna Be” couldn’t be more different, borrowing the bank-breaking, liquid-metal aesthetic from Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream” for its video (along with Janet herself) to cast Busta as a sex symbol over a more mature track with interplanetary wah guitar, a honeyed chorus, and still plenty of Busta’s own whirlwind rapping. It all works, all of it. At this point it was nearly frustrating how focused and tight Busta could be on his singles while his albums seemed to go on forever without any kind of editor.
The “Pass the Courvoisier Pt. II” video (from Genesis, 2001)
Busta’s move to Clive Davis’ J Records was proving somewhat of a nonstarter, after the commercial failure of 2000’s Anarchy and the painfully robotic first single “What It Is.” But things picked up once his sense of humor came back and on Genesis’ final airplay attempt, “Pass the Courvoisier Pt. II,” the rapper played up his slapstick side for a win. The video shows him wielding a chainsaw, hobnobbing with Mr. T and joining forces with two of the most potent forces in the 2001 rap game: good life mogul P. Diddy and off-key crooner/master beatmaker Pharrell Williams. But the fight scene with Mo’Nique is incomparable glory hallelujah: “My pinky toe, you motherf-cker!”
Head-butting a ram in the “Break Ya Neck” video (from Genesis, 2001)
As with Busta’s other post-Elektra singles, the appropriately breakneck “Break Ya Neck” is as messy and spotty as the surrounding album tracks his hit singles used to be undeterred by. But in one of his last visual masterpieces, the video stopped the music for an unforgettable scene (complete with poorly dubbed fake martial arts film dialogue) where he charges at and head-butts a ram — twice — and wins. And then he talks bleeped-out trash to the defeated animal when he’s down. This is probably the beginning of the end for a while, seeing as the very next year Busta would star in Halloween: Resurrection to test the limits of his comedic chops shouting things like “Trick or motherf-ckin’ treat!” and “Happy f-ckin’ Halloween” to Michael Myers. But what a send-off.
Dr. Dre’s “Legends of the Fall Offs” beat (from The Big Bang, 2006)
Dr. Dre oversaw Busta’s 2006 semi-comeback The Big Bang, which ends with an inspired horrorcore piece that uses Dre’s dirgelike tendencies to its advantage. While Busta buries an unnamed rival in thick subliminal disses, the beat itself is literally comprised of shovels and dirt, followed by a pretty horrifying skit in which Busta buries a dude alive as the instrumental has foreshadowed the entire time. Gangsta bloodshed is rarely that thrilling or interesting, and ultimately this track could’ve taken on many more dimensions if a thespian like Eminem was at the helm, but hip-hop’s never seen anything like it before or since and that alone makes it perfectly Busta.
His verse on Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now” (from F.A.M.E., 2011)
As one of the greatest rappers with no great album himself, it was probably destiny that Busta would become one of the all-time cameo MCs. And on the Chris Brown song “Look at Me Now,” Busta pulls an absolute Christopher Walken, tag-teaming with his fellow wizard Lil Wayne and getting in and out of the zero-gravity beat clean with possibly the most incredible syllable streak of the 2010s. Eminem sounds like a heavy-breather by comparison, Nicki Minaj like a slowpoke. Even Wayne’s mostly excellent verse sounds a little shook following it.
His contributions to A Tribe Called Quest’s reunion (from We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, 2016)
It’s not a stretch to say A Tribe Called Quest 1) made the best comeback album in hip-hop history last year 2) or even that it was Tribe’s best album ever 3) or even that it was the best album of 2016, period. But even if any or all of these statements make your blood boil, you have to agree that Busta’s magical four appearances were some of the best things on it. His throat-flexing tomfoolery on the simultaneously laid-back and furious “Dis Generation” (“I’m the exorcist of your writtens”), the demonic, Gilbert Gottfried-like exhortations over “Mobius” and his irrepressibly joyful patois celebrating his fallen friend on “The Donald” are just as exhilarating as anything Busta’s ever done, and maybe a little warmer.
The Grammys performance (2017)
It was already going strong with a Howard Dean-level Q-Tip screaming lovingly over “Award Tour” and the restless Anderson .Paak sing-drumming himself to a new level of stardom on “Movin’ Backwards,” but then Consequence and Busta ascended to the stage, and Busta’s hearty hello was a steely, uncompromising one: “Hey yo, Consequence, I’m not feeling the political climate right now!” Then he thanked “President Agent Orange” for an unsuccessful Muslim ban. Then a multi-cultural collective (including numerous Muslims) rushed the stage for the show’s best performance, “We the People,” a simple enough plea for humanity to act like humans. Busta’s undergone many changes throughout his career. Calling out the president when no one else dared to come out and say it, with a huge televised audience is more courageous than a whole dungeon full of dragons.