The rap vet spent 11 years perfecting his latest album, Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God. He talks to EW about the circumstances that led to it and his decades-long fascination with apocalyptic themes.

By Alex Suskind
October 29, 2020 at 08:33 PM EDT
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Credit: Flo Ngala

Busta Rhymes hasn't released an official studio album since 2012. But the 48-year-old rapper, whose spitfire flow and bold visual aesthetic dominated late-'90s hip-hop, takes issue with anyone who says he disappeared or stayed quiet. "I never completely go away," he tells EW. "I'll always be on s--- because I love to rhyme. I'm a fan of the sport, and I still got the burning fire to want to do this at the fullest level." Outside of a handful of singles, features, and overlooked mixtapes (including the 2013 Q-Tip collaboration The Abstract and The Dragon), Busta has been busy with recording his new project Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God. The new album just took a bit more time to cook than expected: He's been recording on and off for 11 years. "Finding that balance was a little challenging, especially when I'm trying to do things in a new and obscure way," he admits. "It always has to have certain ingredients that separate it from everything else that's going on." The ingredients this time include features from Kendrick Lamar, Mary J. Blige, Bell Biv DeVoe, Anderson .Paak, and Rakim, along with narration by his friend Chris Rock.

The Brooklyn-bred MC spoke to EW about the process of putting ELE2 together and why he continues to return to end-of-world themes in his music.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Other than a few singles and features, you've been relatively quiet over the last eight years. What have you been up to?

BUSTA RHYMES: Diligently trying to create a body of work that I felt would be something that was going to… speak to my soul in a way that hasn't in a long time. I have been so fortunate to have done so many amazing projects… that were even deemed classics by the people and my colleagues and my peers. After doing it this long and having those moments, you feel like What have you not done that you need to do, to reignite the spark and make you feel the excitement you need to feel? Not in the way that you felt it before, but in a way that supersedes everything that you've felt.

Was there a specific moment you can point to where that clicked for you with the new record? A new sound, or a particular avenue?

It's not one thing. It took a lot of years to get to that point to make me feel like that was it, like I had it. But it's a collective that brings you to that place. The music, the s--- you're talking about, just the energy of what you can actually sit back and look at. As time passes, the album goes through so many changes. It's like, at one point you might think you got it, six months down the line you don't. But then… you start replacing things, and you start adjusting things, and you start tweaking things… My standard and my bar is set at almost an unreachable level, so when you've accomplished as much as I have, and you contributed so significantly to the culture and to the art for so many years, nothing about what you do can be regular-degular. You know what I'm saying? You got to do some special s---. So again, it takes a collective of things to know that you are in the right space finally, and that takes time. 

So it's instinct for you.

Yeah, it's instinct s---. And you can't plan it, and you don't know what made it feel right in that moment, but when that moment presents itself, that's when you know when to make your presence felt.

Making a sequel to Extinction Level Event, an album many deem a classic, seems like an even higher bar to set.

I've never really entertained the idea of trying to make a sequel to any of my albums in my catalog. You stay away from trying to make part 2, especially if you know that isn't going to do the [original] justice. 

What convinced me to do it was [having] additional ears in the room to experience what the journey with this project  [was], and to watch the animal instinct reaction that was happening. It was very fulfilling to see… that the Extinction Level Event 2 is not only what it needs to be, but it's also the project that you need to put out now.

Let’s talk about some of the features on the new album. You have Kendrick, Rakim, Anderson .Paak…

The incomparable Mary J. Blige.

You two go back a while. You were on her first record.

Absolutely. She's my sister; she is the queen as far as I'm concerned. There is none before her like her, and there will be none after her like her. I love that woman beyond description. And I just love how she faces her challenges relentlessly, whether it's training, personal s--- in her love life, s--- she's had to deal with when it came to her business affairs, she's always been a friend that I can call and ask for advice or collab. God bless that woman, man.

Busta Rhymes, performing in 1999.
| Credit: Chris Walter/WireImage

The apocalypse has been a consistent theme for you, particularly in album titles: Apocalypse, The Coming, Anarchy, Extinction Level Event. Is the end of the world something you think about a lot? 

We challenge ourselves in different ways, because we are conditioned to be easily led in the wrong direction, even when we know it's the wrong direction. [It's] a lot harder to be led in the right direction. And none of that s--- is by accident; all of this s--- is by design. So when I've created these concepts — from The Coming to When Disaster Strikes to Extinction Level Event to Anarchy, Genesis, It Ain't Safe No More, The Big Bang — it's just one book with different chapters. But they are all dealing with the same interest: to dig deep and get closer to the truth about the s--- the powers that be try so hard to keep us away from… [Yet] people are so conditioned to not believe the truth when they see it that even when it's put in that space, they're still in denial.

You’re talking about being in a world now where police brutality is filmed, and that even that doesn't necessarily convince people abuse is happening?

That's what I was alluding to… So in the music, I try to always point out just how long this agenda has been going on. And yeah, we're going to have fun and we can party and bulls---, but there is another side of life that we got to pay a little closer attention to, because s--- is happening right in front of our face that they are intentionally keeping us distracted from.

So in the midst of all this, you're putting your time and effort into songs that you want people to hear. How do you cut through all that noise as a musician?

That's pretty much the greatest challenge. How do you get people, with all this s--- that you got to cut through, to pay attention enough to what you have to share with them and give them not only enough for them to listen, but enough for them to take what they listen to and actually apply it in some kind of way in their real life, time, and space? Because you have to still feed it to the people in a way that is going to overwhelmingly flatter their taste buds. They're not going to be trying to listen to no s--- if it doesn't appeal to them. Only the creative part of that is what you can control.

It's a challenging process, but it's a beautiful one. Because when you do get it, to that place where you feel comfortable enough to let it go, that's where the control is no longer yours. That's when you've got to trust that the people is going to take it from there and digest it the right way. As long as you did your part, you did what you were supposed to do.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This story appears in the November issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now or buy it here. 16. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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