Let’s get this out of the way: The Abstract & The Dragon, Q-Tip and Busta Rhymes’ new collaborative mixtape, is mostly a way for Busta to hype his upcoming album Extinction Level Event 2. Of the 28 tracks on The Abstract & The Dragon, eight are skits and 13 older cuts, leaving seven that are actually fresh—and of these, there’s new Q-Tip on just three. Even “Thank You,” both one of the best songs of 2013 and the track that helped announce The Abstract & The Dragon, is one of the E.L.E. 2 singles, and its absence on the tape (unnecessary remix with Kid Capri replacing Kanye and Lil Wayne notwithstanding) looms large.
On the other hand, pretty much anything would have made for a decent Busta Rhymes/Q-Tip collaborative mixtape. Though the former A Tribe Called Quest frontman has continued to make solid music since the group’s breakup, he hasn’t been on the mic much since 2009’s Kamaal/The Abstract. And Busta has been spotty at best for the past few years, coasting on the all-encompassing shtick that originally made him so exciting. So though it was nice to think The Abstract & The Dragon would somehow be a tape full of “Thank You”-level tracks, sky-high expectations were probably unreasonable. Even if there isn’t a ton of original material, The Abstract & The Dragon is something different—an old-school mixtape that’s also a guided nostalgia tour through the intersection of two great careers.
Beyond the sizable filler, there are still quite a few excellent deeper, slept-on cuts. Given Tip’s ear, it’s unsurprising that almost everything features excellent production—besides Q-Tip and Busta, there are beats from DJ Scratch (“Get Down,” previously released as “N.T.”), J Dilla (“Lightworks,” featuring Talib Kweli over one of the best tracks from Donuts), and Big Daddy Kane (“Come On Down”). But a few of these older tracks in particular deserve the attention, like the remix of “Renaissance Rap,” featuring an ice-cold Raekwon and on-point Lil Wayne (one of the benefits of the track being a few years old) over a slow, Western-style whistle. And the new songs bounce with the same carefree energy as “Thank You,” showcasing two living legends having fun with nothing to prove—on “Butch & Sundance,” the two trade verses painting a picture of their continued, almost casual dominance.
In addition to a promotional device for E.L.E. 2, then, The Abstract & The Dragon is an excuse for both Busta and Tip to pause and take a breath, looking back with pride on what they’ve accomplished so far. Busta is, of course, preparing E.L.E. 2 while Tip seems close to releasing his long awaited solo album The Last Zulu, which may also feature the rest of A Tribe Called Quest, and gearing up to executive produce the next Kanye album. The trip down memory lane also both partially justifies the endless skits and allows the tape to eulogize bygone heroes, including Dilla and Violator’s Chris Lighty.
With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that the tape builds to the unqualified hits—“Scenario” and its (arguably superior) remix. It would be borderline offensive if it felt like Busta and Tip were nakedly exploiting residual goodwill and love for their past collaborations by including “Scenario”—is there anyone even remotely interested in The Abstract & The Dragon who doesn’t already love one of the greatest posse cuts of all time? —But Kamaal and Busta are just celebrating the highlight of their 20-year creative relationship.
That’s why the best part of the project is Busta’s new verse on Midnight Marauders’ “God Lives Through.” There’s classic Busta wordplay (“Skyscraper rhymes flying like the first bird/Penthouse view will help me see the Earth curve”)—but more importantly, it calls up heartfelt and earned Native Tongues nostalgia without sounding like a relic or pathetic echo. Even the mismatched audio quality between Busta’s verse and the beat and original Tribe verses is an asset, suggesting that maybe the ghosts of golden age Phife and Tip are actually in the booth in 2013 with Busta, if only for a moment—and maybe that’s all anyone really needed from The Abstract and The Dragon.—Eric Thurm