After his former crew, Leaders Of The New School, disbanded, Busta Rhymes decided to clear his head. He believed that he could only discover himself by leaving behind what he thought defined him as a person, so he rented a Hyundai and planned a cross-country road trip. He recruited his cousin Rampage the Last Boy Scout to ride shotgun, so that he would always have someone to talk to. While purchasing supplies at an A&P, (primarily Ozarka bottled water, Flintstone vitamins, and six cans of regular Pringles), a homeless neighborhood boy that referred to himself as Spliff Star to whoever was listening started hanging around Trevor and his cousin as if he belonged, and Busta was too singularly focused on his vision quest to shoo him away. The night before the trip, the newly formed trio took in a monster truck rally, finding themselves impressed with the man announcing the evening's events, who had named himself Lord Have Mercy because his parents were hippies, and invited him along for the ride.
The next morning, Busta Rhymes decided to scrap the entire journey, because he had already found what he was looking for: an entirely new crew, which he quickly christened as the Flipmode Squad. Also, this joke was getting old, so it's better to kill it now.
The Flipmode Squad is best known as our chosen genre's approximation of a revolving door, having cycled through some sixteen motherfucking members before Busta Rhymes essentially gave up his role as the crew's generalissimo and took a position with Puff Daddy's Dream Team instead. The incarnation that existed in 1998, after two Busta solo projects and a debut from Rampage, consisted of the four artists listed above alongside the unknown Baby Sham and New Jersey's own Rah Digga, the only female emcee that has ever graced the camp (who had experience of her own with being part of a group, maintaining her affiliation with The Outsiderz while being called up to the big leagues).
The Imperial is the first group album from the Flipmode Squad, promoted solely on the strength of Busta's solo career, which had skyrocketed after his reign as hip hop's cameo king. As there was only room for six names on the album cover, The Imperial completely neglects the minor contributions of a rapper named Serious, who performed as a part of the group on Rampage's album; he was replaced by Baby Sham. Replacing people was a hobby of Busta Rhymes: soon after The Imperial hit store shelves, Lord Have Mercy found himself out of a job, having been replaced by Roc Marcy, who is better known now as ex-Flipmode member (and blogger favorite) Roc Marciano. Actually, Busta eventually replaced everybody in the group, aside from Spliff Star, because every artist has to have his hypeman at all times.
The Imperial was a mildly successful effort, but it clearly didn't work well enough, as each attempt at releasing a follow-up petered out before any interest could ever be truly generated. Not that it really mattered to the Flipmode Squad anyway: since none of them, not even Busta's own cousin, was guaranteed a spot, everyone just went about doing their own thing, releasing solo albums and making guest appearances at convenience store openings while waiting for the other shoe to drop. The person most affected by the failure of The Imperial was the ousted Lord Have Mercy: he soon saw his own solo album locked away in a studio vault, never to see a proper release. I believe he's now an assistant manager at an American Eagle Outfitters.
1. THE IMPERIAL INTRO
This was pointless for every goddamn person involved, and I'm including Busta Rhymes in that assessment. After wasting over a full minute on a nonsensical skit, Trevor takes to the stage and attempts to introduce each member of the Flipmode Squad in an overly dramatic fashion. The problem here is twofold: not only is Busta taking this shit waaaay too seriously (it's just music, dude), he also doesn't allow any of his teammates to speak for themselves. That's right: on the introduction to a group album, the only voice you hear belongs to camera hog Busta Rhymes. There is no need for this horseshit to even exist.
2. TO MY PEOPLE
One of the best characteristics of the Flipmode Squad is that they each have a distinctive voice, so it's extraordinarily easy to tell them all apart. Over a plodding DJ Scratch beat accompanied by a hilariously noncommittal Busta hook, five of the six team members use up their daily allotment of bars in an attempt to destroy the scenery, with only Rah Digga and Busta mildly succeeding. Rampage, the only other member of the Squad to have a solo album in stores at this point, sounds pretty fucking weak, but he does sound exactly as he did on his own Scout's Honor...By Way Of Blood (which is still a horrible album title), even with the infrequent echoes at the end of his bars, so there's something to be said for consistency. It's curious that Lord Have Mercy fails to make an appearance on the first actual song from The Imperial. Oooh, foreshadowing!
3. SETTIN' IT OFF
Lord Have Mercy doesn't appear on this song, either. Busta Rhymes bats first, spitting a verse that seems to take up four times as much space than the other four rappers who appear combined, which only helps my newer readers understand why the Flipmode Squad no longer truly exists. The performances are all a bit stronger than they were on “To My People”, though, thanks in large part to M.D.'s instrumental, which sounds like something Q-Tip might have used post-Beats, Rhymes & Life. Which is to say that it sounded pretty good. Not bad, Trevor.
4. RUN FOR COVER
Lord H. Mercy, Esq., makes his first appearance on The Imperial over this incomplete Swizz beat that sounds like a remnant of an awful Busta Rhymes solo track, which is a terrible way to introduce him. He isn't the greatest rapper in the world or anything, but he has the second-most distinctive flow in the entire Squad, and he performs so rarely that it always seems to be put to good use. Until now. “Run For Cover” is fucking terrible as both a posse cut and as a discernible example of “music”. Moving on...
5. I GOT YOUR BACK
Trevor sends Lord out to get some more munchies and a Diet Shasta while he and the other four members of Flipmode that he actually gave a fuck about relate a fictional tale of a brawl that escalates into a double homicide, all while proclaiming that, basically, they are a family and they will do whatever it takes to protect one another. The jumbled conversational tone of the track lends itself to a few corny excuses for rhymes (mainly coming from Rampage's direction), and the five leads all sound a bit too quick to jump towards murder as a solution to their problems, but at least there is some solidarity present on The Imperial. If you listen closely to the track, you can hear Lord Have Mercy softly chewing and sobbing in the background. The skit at the end was fucking useless, though.
6. THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS
Although the end of the preceding skit does lend itself to the title of this track, so maybe it wasn't entirely useless, just really fucking stupid. “This Is What Happens” is a duet between Rah Digga and Rampage, one that actually sounds pretty good in spite of its terrible chorus and the tendency of both artists to use echo effects during specific bars. DJ Scratch's beat has a lot to do with the high entertainment value, as he turns in some work that sounds like a more technologically advanced Beatminerz joint, it's that good. The skit at the end also leads into the next song: I had forgotten that was an inconsistent running theme.
7. EVERYBODY ON THE LINE OUTSIDE
The first single from The Imperial finds Busta Rhymes hanging out at the club with Rampage and Lord Have Mercy on some “guys night out” type of shit, or at least that's what I'm led to believe, since all these three talk about is getting pussy and commenting on how long the line to get in has grown. I've always liked the sound of this DJ Scratch-produced track: it sounds enough like one of the better Busta solo songs to help bring in that audience, but throws in some new twists to sound unique, so that the rest of the Flipmode Squad would sound comfortable performing over it, had Busta been charitable enough to allow that to happen. The night at the club ends poorly, though, with someone getting shot during the second half of the skit that frames the song. This makes me want to rescind the E-vite I had sent to the Flipmode Squad to attend my niece's fifth birthday party: they seem to being nothing but violence to the table. Sucks for you, Busta: there was going to be a bouncy castle and everything.
8. LAST NIGHT
Busta's faux-reggae hook is pretty laughable, but otherwise, I enjoyed this duet between him and his hypeman Spliff Star, even though Spliff's flow is so similar to Trevor's that I'm fairly certain there was a bit of ghostwriting going on. At least that might explain why Spliffy turns in one of the best performances of his entire career over this simple Trevor Smith production that is just annoying enough to get stuck in your head immediately after it ends, Some of you two may find the hook insufferable, though, and you wouldn't be wrong.
9. WHERE YOU THINK YOU GOIN'
One of Busta's favorite things to do, aside from driving home drunk, working out to excess, and shouting catchphrases in the hopes that one will stick, is rhyming over string-based samples that lend his music an air of classical reverence (see: “Gimme Some More”, “C'mon All My N----z, C'mon All My Bitches”), so it makes sense that this character trait would make its way to The Imperial. “Where You Think You Goin'” contains a chorus that mostly repeats the question asked in its title (the Flipmode Squad seem to have predicted the reaction of the listener to Busta's shitty chorus on “Last Night”), but it also is the first track on The Imperial that actually features all six members, and it only took working through half of the fucking project to get to this point. Too bad this track isn't so great.
10. WE GOT U OPIN (PART 2) (FEAT. BUCKSHOT)
Of all the places that one would think the sequel to Black Moon's “I Got Cha Opin” would finally appear, five years after the original sprained the necks of hip hop heads everywhere (in New York, anyway), The Imperial would have been my second-to-last choice, ranking right below the new Yanni album. Da Beatminerz supply a dark, early-1990s masterpiece of a beat, and all six members give their all to what is easily the best (and most surprising, mostly because of its mere existence in the first place) song on the entire album. Black Moon's Buckshot provides the hook, but then pulls a fast one on the audience by delivering the final verse, which is just good business, given that the Flipmode Squad had a much wider reach than any project that any member of the Boot Camp Clik has ever and will ever release. This shit was nice, son!
11. STRAIGHT SPITTIN'
Although the “Straight Spittin'” series of freestyles masquerading as songs has found an extended life on Rah Digga solo albums, its origins are found right here on The Imperial, with Digga performing in a virtual cypher with the rest of her crew. The Tony Touch instrumental exists solely to lend structure to the individual bars of the artists involved, so it says out of the way while the Flipmode Squad, um, straight spits. These six emcees have a casual camaraderie that makes their rhymes sound even more enjoyable when performing as a group, but that goodwill only seems to extend to The Imperial, since there are plenty of crappy Flipmode collaborations on the solo projects that annoy the shit out of me. This one doesn't.
12. MONEY TALKS
Well, I figured that streak of hot tracks would end sooner rather than later. On this ridiculous ode to how much money
Busta Rhymes the Flipmode Squad has and how everyone else is just jealous and should just admit to it, Busta recruits the three rappers in the crew who ware most likely to actually have some incidental cash: himself, Rampage, and Rah Digga, all of whom have solo careers of varying degrees of success...and his hypeman Spliff Star, who he has to pay to promote him, of course. (Baby Sham and Lord Have Mercy weren't allowed into this exclusive club, as it was already at capacity.) Not only does this song make the listener want to rob the artists involved themselves, just to shut them the fuck up, it also makes you wonder whose idea it was to turn hip hop into something your adult contemporary-leaning parents would want to listen to. Bleh.
13. CHA CHA CHA
“Cha Cha Cha” (no relation to the MC Lyte song of the same name) was the second (and, to my knowledge, final) single from The Imperial, apparently chosen as such because it features the three members of the Flipmode Squad that didn't appear on “Everybody On The Line Outside” (and, naturally, Busta Rhymes, who just can't leave rap alone, because the game needs him). DJ Scratch's beat is radio and club friendly, and more than a bit corny, but the three rappers manage to make it work, turning this into an unexpected delight. Busta's hook is pretty fucking stupid, though. Hey, you can't win them all, especially with a song called “Cha Cha Cha”, but this wasn't awful.
14. HIT EM WIT DA HEAT
This posse cut was fairly weak. Although everyone eventually arrives at this party, Rockwilder's beat isn't as much “engaging” as it is “noisy”: it sounds like a broken alarm clock waking you from a drunken stupor after pulling an all-nighter in Vegas and letting your friend hook up with a pre-op transvestite because you had taken way too many shots of Patron and your judgment skills were questionable at best, and besides, you don't really like him all that much anyway, you keep him around so that you and the rest of your actual friends always have someone to talk shit about and make fun of. Clearly this paragraph has spun out of control, so I'm going to stop...now.
15. DO FOR SELF
I most certainly didn't request a “serious” Flipmode Squad song: was it you? This duet between Baby Sham and Spliff Star (with a cameo from Busta towards the end) features our hosts trying to relate street tales in an attempt to convince their listeners that they should not want to follow in their footsteps, and that they should aim for a better life. The ending is too fucking depressing when matched with The Imperial as a whole: good thing the skit at the end (which leads into the final track) is nonsensical enough to negate any potential impact Sham and Spliff might have had on the audience, which is, admittedly, a slim amount.
Inappropriately enough, The Imperial ends with a posse cut that entirely neglects Lord Have Mercy's quickly-diminishing role in the Flipmode Squad. Busta and his friends use the L.E.S. beat to kick some random verses, and then all five combine like Voltron to trade bars in a single verse at the end, which had to have been the ultimate knife in the back for Mr. Mercy. The energy on this finale was fairly consistent with the rest of The Imperial, but I walked away feeling empty, as I'm sure most of you two would, as well. It just isn't a satisfying way to end things.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Flipmode Squad's first (and, to date, only) group album, The Imperial, holds up surprisingly well today (at least the first two-thirds, anyway), much more so than most of the Busta Rhymes solo albums, mainly because he doesn't have to shoulder the burden of carrying all sixteen tracks (although he appears on nearly all of them anyway). Rampage, Rah Digga, Spliff Star, Baby Sham, and the sorely underused Lord Have Mercy all make perfect foils for Busta's wild antics, as they are able to mostly maintain the same level of energy that their leader possesses: the only aspect of these tracks that generally fail them are the instrumentals themselves, some of which sounds as though they were stolen from an entirely different project. With the exception of the guy who seems to disappear for several tracks at a time, everyone in the Squad receives a proper showcase on The Imperial, some more successfully than others, and the end result is the rare crew album that actually belongs alongside the others in the Busta Rhymes catalog, as opposed to it being a weed carrier compilation recorded by people simply along for the ride. The Imperial isn't even close to being a perfect album, or even a great one, but most of it is pretty entertaining, and in spots it's even quite brilliant. But only in spots.
BUY OR BURN? This is actually a worthy purchase. (Especially at the price listed below.) Which isn't something that can be said of most Busta Rhymes-assisted projects, so don't get used to this type of praise just yet. I just happened to enjoy The Imperial much more today than I did way back in 1998.
BEST TRACKS: “We Got U Opin (Part 2)”; “Everybody On The Line Outside”; “Straight Spittin'”; “Settin' It Off”; “Cha Cha Cha”