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Hiphop elitists (who, me?) love to believe that rap music’s audience has changed. We wax nostalgic about a “golden era” of hiphop a time when the artists aspired to deftly crafted lyrics and every listener held them to some universally understood standard of excellence. We are quick to pan contemporary artists for their simplicity. We allow ourselves to praise MCs only when their lyrical predecessors fit into our established pantheon: Nas was lauded as the next Rakim. Mos Def’s insight is frequently and absurdly attributed to his Native Tongue affiliation. Kool G Rap has been heralded as the ancestor of everyone from Big Pun to Biggie Smalls. We old-school loyalists look down on today’s rap fans for their inability to recognize these inheritances and for their vulnerability to what we see as less worthy material. “When did everybody stop listening?” we ask, shaking our heads.

It is possible, however, that no one was ever listening in the first place. Nowadays, Jay-Z’s conversational rhymes conceal tongue-in-cheek and occasionally condescending jabs at an oblivious audience. DMX’s bark-and-response rap is often unintelligible. Nevertheless, the fact that Def Jam chose to release his second album less than a year after his top-selling debut is proof that fans can’t get enough of the “dog.” It is these rappers’ unique sounds, not the intricacy of their material, that fans love. That being the unfortunate case, it is also conceivable that Rakim’s enduring popularity could be attributed to the smooth, steady sound of his voice rather than his complexity. It could be that people appreciated the cleverness of Big Daddy Kane’s carefully constructed rhyming triplets, but they probably just liked the way he rolled his tongue. It reads like blasphemy, but the majority of listeners probably don’t care what you say, as long as it sounds cool when you say it.

From Busta Rhymes’ ominously titled third album, Extinction Level Event, it’s apparent that no MC realized this fact quicker than the original “dungeon dragon” himself. Since he began his career as a member of the Leaders of the New School, Busta Rhymes has distinguished himself by the unique sound of his voice. Along with Onyx, he was a forerunner of the “gritty” style. But unlike that of those “official nasties,” Busta’s sound was not contrived. His voice was naturally gravelly, and it set him apart from the other members of his crew as well as from most of his contemporaries.

Busta Rhymes’ popularity grew too much for the struggling Leaders, and he embarked on a solo career shortly after the group’s second and final album. With each solo project, Busta has gained a greater ability to manipulate his flow. “Flow,” the word MCs use to refer to their delivery, has evolved way beyond rap’s other dimensions, especially content. It’s good to have something to talk about, but most of the time, a nice flow is all you need to get by. Instead of just “talking over a beat,” rappers like Busta Rhymes use their voices as instruments, with trademark sounds every bit as recognizable as Adam Duritz’s whine or Eddie Vedder’s howl. Where he once growled and shouted indiscriminately from track to track, Busta attempts to vary his flow to fit each beat on the new album.

There are moments on Event where this experimentation pays off. Busta’s clenched-teeth snarling on “Do It to Death” is a soothing change from his usual explosions. The lyricist who once exclaimed, “Every time I relax my mind I’m shittin’ on ’em!” in an R&B song is downright subdued in “Keepin’ It Tight,” “Hot Shit Makin’ Ya Bounce,” and “Party Is Goin’ On Over Here.” Busta’s wannabe-sexy duet with Janet Jackson, “What’s It Gonna Be?!,” is a much less successful attempt. With his ham-handed rhymes “Baby come on, give me the shiver that make you quiver while I deliver/the shit that’ll hit you right in your liver” and her icky choruses “Gonna make your body cream, make you have wet dreams” the song is a syrupy mess.

There are a couple of other really appalling duets on Event, including a shouting match with No Limit’s Mystikal and an unspeakable remake of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” featuring Ozzy Osbourne. (Bus-A-Bus apparently learned nothing from Puffy’s disastrous duet with Jimmy Page.) Both songs are standout examples of Extinction Level Event’s debilitating weakness: The album is heavy with party chants and semi-fight songs that are bouncy but ultimately insubstantial. Event is bookended with grim skits about end-of-the-world events and the uncertainty of a new millennium. Nevertheless, in 19 tracks, Busta doesn’t get much more involved than “all up in your body, whippin’ a Maserati/through your city with one of my hotties, I’m on the way to the party.”

The truth is, Busta Rhymes devises apocalyptic album titles The Coming, When Disaster Strikes, and now Extinction Level Event and foreboding statements like “There’s only one year left!” to create drama around what are essentially mindless party songs. In the same way, he uses the aggressiveness of his delivery to shore up thematically weak songs aimed too often at just “makin’ ya bounce.” Even Busta’s “powerful impact” vocalism is not enough to sustain that vibe for long or prevent Event from succumbing to lyrical silliness.

Redman, aka the Funk Doctor Spock, is similar to Busta Rhymes in that after three albums, he also has found no reason to vary his subject matter in the slightest. His third release, Doc’s Da Name 2000, is yet another of his hardcore dedications to the Bricks (New Jersey), chickenheads (women), “buddah” (marijuana), and rockin’ the mike. With such worn topics and Redman’s most unimaginative title to date, one might expect Doc’s Da Name to be equally banal.

But his triviality is offset despite his raw image and smoked-out “I don’t give a fuck” persona by his stature as one of the most creative, technically advanced MCs in the game. Recently, MTV called him a “master of the form.” MTV is, not surprisingly, several years behind the rest of the hiphop world in that realization. Though his voice and appearance are not quite as superhuman as Busta Rhymes’, his delivery is just as powerful, and he is years beyond Busta and most others in his flow. With a wry sense of humor, Redman stretches pronunciation and forces words not only to rhyme but to sound fine: “I misplace my Lex keys every time I be zee’d up/I was caught puttin’ Christmas trees up and it was Easter.”

For the great majority of Doc, the Funk Doctor sticks to his formula of ghetto references and hilarious punch lines over funky, bass-heavy tracks. Redman certainly gives listeners reasons to laugh even against their better judgment with lines like “If you’re gonna be a monkey, be a gorilla/It’s 4 a.m., I’m off a tab and still a/world rap biller, push a big Benz/with a chickenhead’s drawers hangin’ from my antenna.”

When Redman does experiment, he seems right at home, regardless of the style. “Da Goodness” is an up-tempo track reminiscent of Busta Rhymes’ “Dangerous.” Indeed, it features Busta as the clean-up man. But by the time Redman finishes ripping his second high-speed verse, Busta’s appearance is moot. Jungle whiz Roni Size produced “I Got a Seecret,” the album’s closer. Redman alternates between his typical delivery and a rapid Dirty South flow with ease, hinting at a bright future for collaboration between drum ‘n’ bass artists and legitimate MCs. The gem of Doc’s Da Name is “Da Da DaHHH,” a clever near-narrative supported by Redman’s signature delivery. It suggests what might happen if he applied himself to more than just one-liners.

On Hard to Earn, Gang Starr’s fourth album, Guru copped out by claiming, “It’s mostly the voice.” He was making excuses for the fact that at the time he had run dry of relevant things to say. Rap is a highly literal art form in which there is as yet no substitute for solid lyrical content. Still, rappers are starting to understand delivery in the same way other types of vocalists do. Rather than just going with the flow, many are now refining and modifying it depending on the situation. This not only distinguishes them from each other—it sets them apart as artists.