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LORD KNOWS

Anyone with even a passing interest in hip-hop has heard the name Just Blaze shouted over an old soul sample or a triumphant horn crescendo on everything from Cam’ron bangers like “I Really Mean It” and “Oh Boy” to Jay-Z’s much overlooked deep cut “Soon You’ll Understand” and the neo-hip-house of Joe Budden’s “Fire (Yes, Yes Y’all).” Tonight, he joins Ayers and Eleven for the Rub’s 10th anniversary party, helping the Brooklyn monthly celebrate a decade of irresistible music, sweaty nights, and hungover mornings. Pregame with the recording of Just’s 2010 Fool’s Gold Holiday Party set and his interview on the latest installment of Rub Radio.

Sat., July 28, 10 p.m., 2012

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Joe Budden+Joell Ortiz

Tonight’s co-headliners Joe Budden and Joell Ortiz were busy in early 2011, releasing a new EP with their hip-hop supergroup, Slaughterhouse, but both have kept a relatively low profile for high-profile emcees since. The Jersey City based Budden has released a couple of mixtapes but is seemingly still busy pumping up his forthcoming LP, The Great Escape, while Brooklyn’s Ortiz, who released the album Free Agent in February, has been diffusing accusations of dissing Big Pun in his song “Big Pun’s Back” by claiming to have taken the deceased rapper’s place. Do him a favor tonight and tell him whether he’s a player or not.

Tue., Dec. 27, 9 p.m., 2011

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Slaughterhouse Hit the Crossover Road

“I want to punch these bloggers in the face, man. I wanna beat they ass.” Royce Da 5′ 9″ is lounging backstage at the Highline Ballroom, venting about the manner in which hip-hop’s online gatekeepers have reacted to the news that Slaughterhouse—the subterranean all-star team of rappers Joell Ortiz, Joe Budden, Crooked I, and himself—have finally signed to Eminem’s Shady Records. Royce sounds irked, and as preparations for the evening’s celebratory show continue to take form around him, he explains: “A lot of the bloggers that really supported us when we were super-underground, now that we signed to Shady, it’s like they super-turned on us. They say we’ve gotten too big for them to even respect us any more.” He pauses, then reiterates. “Like I said, I’ll punch one of them in they face.” He makes it sound like a not-entirely-idle threat.

Royce’s frustration cuts to the heart of the Slaughterhouse conundrum: How do you take a feverishly worshipped underground rap group—a quartet of mercilessly sharp lyricists who excel at crafting blitzkrieg verses—to a wider, potentially mainstream audience without losing the respect and devotion of its original fan base? It’s a problem compounded by the group’s image. In self-deprecating terms, Ortiz says, “Somebody online will sit there and say that I’m fat.” Royce adds, “People say I’m closer to 40 than 30 years old just because I got in the game at the same time as Marshall [Mathers], so they think we’re the same age.”

These are not the times in which paunchy, middle-aged rappers are seen as particularly marketable, but Slaughterhouse are banking on the Eminem factor to effect a “humongous difference in our careers,” as Crooked I puts it. As the group sets about recording its first album for Shady, hitting studios in L.A., and then holing up in Detroit for the home stretch, it faces an uphill path pocked with hip-hop’s often contradictory preoccupation with authenticity, as well as the indignity of being monitored by a cackling cadre of online commentators. It’s not going to be an easy sell, but Slaughterhouse are finally rolling with the right team.

Upon forming in 2008, Slaughterhouse immediately became ambassadors for the plight of gifted rappers chewed up by the industry machine. Budden has never replicated the success of 2003’s Grammy-nominated “Pump It Up.” Crooked I experienced unfulfilling stints on Virgin and Death Row. Royce saw the benefits of an early association with Eminem—the two Detroit dwellers recorded as Bad Meets Evil for Source founder John Shecter’s soft-porn-themed Game label in 1999—turn sour and dissolve into a long-running (but now resolved) dis war. And hometown folk hero Ortiz went from running around the city giving out his mixtape, Who the Fuck Is Joell Ortiz?, and releasing a rugged and uncompromising debut, 2007’s The Brick: Bodega Chronicles, to being beckoned over to the Aftermath stable—but his album was continually delayed and ultimately never released. So the public announcement of Slaughterhouse, which was sparked by all four members appearing on a song by that name on Budden’s Halfway House project, sounded less like a euphoric creative union and more like the unveiling of a plot by which four scorned rappers would wreak revenge on the industry.

But instead of notching a win for the underdog and giving inspiration to the underbelly of unfashionable rappers, Slaughterhouse’s self-titled debut, released in 2009 on E1 Music, was a muted affair. It also reinforced the stingy commercial limitations for rappers not interested in riding popular musical trends. Sure, at times the MCs proved their punchy prowess—”H-E-L-L-O, I’m one hell of a show/I’m the best, you stuck in the middle like L-M-N-O,” toyed Ortiz on “Woodstock Hood Hop,” before nicely threatening to smash a guitar over an imaginary foe’s head in a Brooklyn bar—but the project suffered from mundane production and a disjointed feel; too often, Slaughterhouse tracks sounded like they were from four rappers who just so happened to stumble onto the same song. (Any gamble that Slaughterhouse’s album sales would pool together the financial clout of four different sets of fans seemed to backfire, too, with Slaughterhouse shifting a lowly 18,000 copies in its first week on sale.) But what smarted most about listening to the album was the utter lack of angst. In Royce’s terms, the group wasn’t punching bloggers so much as politely emailing them songs to upload.

It’s this untapped angst and emotion that Eminem needs to provoke, then tease into a collection of songs. Slaughterhouse could not have picked a more appropriate mentor. Molded himself by Dr. Dre—who, when he decides to actually prioritize a project, is the best in the game at creating rap stars—Eminem may sometimes catch flack for, say, sampling Aerosmith or taking petty potshots at pop figures. But he’s kept the respect and support of his first wave of fans, even those who’ll insist that the songs on 1997’s Slim Shady EP are superior to the versions that made their way onto his debut album, through his undeniable writing skills. While Jay-Z likes to brag about never jotting down his rhymes, Eminem comes across like a poetical scientist, meticulously revising the contents of his rhyme-book until each line is syllabically perfect. As Royce testifies, “When we meet up with him, we have a lot of competitive lyrical conversations, ’cause that’s all Em likes to talk about. It’s like we’re five of the same people.”

The Eminem Show may be promoted with a large dose of sensationalism, but the rapper’s foundation is precise rhymes. It’s this clued-up, grassroots faction of Eminem’s fan base that Slaughterhouse are targeting. As Crooked I says, “Eminem has true fans who will buy an album, not just download a single. He’s developed fans that are loyal to him—I’m sure some of them are willing to give us a listen because he said so.” If he’s right, that branch of Eminem’s army might be supportive enough to prevent Royce from following through with his threat.

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On Charles Hamilton, Joe Budden, Asher Roth, and the Perils of Internet Oversharing

With his pink wardrobe, adoption of retro video-game character Sonic the Hedgehog as a spirit animal, and languid verses, Charles Hamilton was a newcomer built to thrive in a rap environment that has learned to tolerate a splash of DayGlo whimsy. The 21-year-old was cute and contempo and sensitive, but retained enough Harlem arrogance to escape being ostracized as a total pussy. After signing with Interscope Records in the summer of 2008, Hamilton spent the next year exuberantly building a reputation as an underdog smartass: He released several mixtapes, blogged with regularity, Twittered 50-some times a day, and reveled in the real-time furor he was able to create as a hip-hop fameball.

Despite Hamilton’s enthusiasm, missteps accumulated. He was busted for pilfering a beat from an underground producer. He came out the loser after exchanging disparaging video clips with kiddie-rapper Soulja Boy. He was punched in the face by a female spoken-word poet after insinuating that she had aborted their unborn child during a videotaped “battle.” And in a climactic faux pas in June, he weirdly credited deceased beatmaker J-Dilla with “executive producing” his forthcoming LP A Perfect Life—a sin that earned self-righteous rebuttals from protectionist Detroiters and a refutation from Dilla’s mother. Within a week’s time, Hamilton vanished from the Internet: no blogs, no Tweets, no videos. (His last Twitter update, dated June 10: “Good morning sunshine!!!”) According to industry rumormongers, Interscope honcho Jimmy Iovine himself issued the gag order: Shut your pie-hole, or lose your deal. (Hamilton declined an interview request for this story.) A life and death done digitally, this was the rap version of a Tamagotchi pocket pet.

Whether this online exile was self-imposed or commanded from on high, his rise and fail are indicative of the alternative outcomes that can occur when an artist dives headlong into the virtual fishbowl. As record sales wither and labels strain to monetize artists as shampoo-shilling “personal brands,” online outlets such as blogs, Twitter, and video channels like Vlad TV and World Star Hip-Hop have taken on increased importance. Seldom inclined to shy away from attention, rappers have discovered that these are ideal mediums for beefing with rivals, griping about the music business, threatening retirement, and otherwise piling firewood onto the roaring bonfire of their egos. Once muzzled by publicists, promoters, and management intermediaries, they’re now free to grouse, giggle, and emote in real-time. “Artists are feeling more empowered with the technology,” says Elliott Wilson, former editor-in-chief of XXL magazine who currently runs the Rap Radar site. “You can tell people not to do XYZ, but it’s so easy to get your message out there. It just takes you a second to type a couple thoughts.” As a fuchsia-clad Harlemite can attest, the ever-thinning membrane between celebrities and the public can be a gift and a curse.

Hip-hop artists immersed themselves in social networking just like everyone else: A few pioneers recognized the potential, and the clueless masses blundered in later. ?uestlove, El-P, and Prodigy of Mobb Deep were prescient enough to become active on their own websites or message boards early on, but a digital wall manned by label sentinels usually separated artists from the general public. MySpace, a site expressly created to splinter such barriers, was the next major step: Those clunky pages (excellent as they were for aggregating groupies) have given way to an environment in which an independent artist with a strong online presence can compete for face-time with acts on major labels.

Consider New Jersey rapper Joe Budden, a former Def Jam signee who now wedges himself into the news cycle with remarkable consistency without that association. He indulges in feuds with other artists, uploads video of his buxom girlfriend to the Joe Budden TV site, and is part of Slaughterhouse, a group that includes several other artists (Crooked I, Joell Ortiz, Royce Da 5’9″) more popular in the blogosphere than on the radio. He even briefly crossed into the world of basketball after streaming footage of an expletive-laced phone conversation with Milwaukee Bucks draft pick Brandon Jennings. To Budden, the key to captivating an online audience is simply authenticity: “Over the years, the fans have gotten a lot wiser,” he says. “They can tell when it’s not the actual artist or it’s just someone doing it for the sake of doing it. When it’s genuine, it’s way better.”

Assuming their digital incarnations aren’t bored interns or multitasking weed-carriers crumbling Kush on a MacBook, artists take divergent approaches to promoting their music and interacting with fans. Diddy, who survived a #unfollowdiddy campaign on Twitter in May, has corralled over 1.6 million people intrigued by his exclamation-point-spiked exhortations for positivity and praise for Ciroc Vodka. He’s not sending out tweets while dodging Basij bullets on the frontline of the Iranian protest, but for Diddy, it fits.

Even artists less prone to taking bubble baths with their Grammys can complement an on-record image by being interesting online. “Personality goes a long way,” says Phonte, a rapper in the group Little Brother who posts on Twitter and the Okayplayer message board. “There is nothing more boring than a PC milquetoast-ass nigga. A little well-placed snark and humor can help people see you in a new light—it shows you are capable of critical thought and enjoy spending time among the commoners in the peanut gallery.”

A personal touch is attractive, but not when it veers into inappropriate humor or cringe-worthy oversharing. Earlier this year, white frat-rapper Asher Roth was demonized for making an ill-advised tweet about “hanging out with nappy headed hoes,” while Kid Cudi penned a blog post claiming that the toll of celebrity was forcing him into premature retirement (unsurprisingly, he walked it back). The ease of blogging or Twittering begets a flippancy that may look even cheaper under scrutiny. “Rappers will make a bad joke or just have a bad day and express their frustration, and it becomes a heavily circulated story,” says Wilson. “If you write some Twitters where you’re just like, ‘I’m feeling real depressed today,’ then everybody has you on suicide watch. Sometimes, artists don’t realize that everything they say on their Twitter page is on the record.”

As blustery and sensitive a breed as they might be, rappers are not the only celebrities who have found social networking a mixed bag. In July, Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor deleted his Twitter account after he and his girlfriend were repeatedly harassed by, as he put it, “unattractive plump females who publicly fantasize about having sex with guys in bands.” Outside of music, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $25,000 for criticizing NBA officials on Twitter, while Pete Hoekstra, a U.S. Representative from Michigan, inadvertently revealed his location while traveling through Iraq and Afghanistan. Rule of thumb: Think first, post second. “Arrogance, negativity, and emotional rants where artists are complaining about private and confidential matters can cause issues,” says Tracy Nguyen, a publicist who has worked with Nick Cannon, Kelis, and Ice Cube. “It can result in the type of press attention that perhaps they aren’t seeking.” Of course, if you live by the adage that all publicity is good publicity, you have nothing to fear—except maybe Jimmy Iovine.

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Status Ain’t Hood Interviews Joe Budden

Let him do his thing

Joe Budden’s talking-on-the-phone voice is so different from his rapping voice that it’s almost scary. On record, his voice is a hoarse, heavy battering-ram grumble. On the phone, he’s got this rich, melodious TV-newscaster thing going. I didn’t live in New York during the brief period where he was a Hot 97 morning personality, but he must’ve been great. Budden has become something of a poster child for everything that’s wrong with rap; there’s no good reason why Def Jam, the label that just finally granted him his release, kept him on the shelf for as long as it did, especially considering that his first album sold respectably. So Budden vented his frustration on the pretty-great Mood Muzik mixtape series, the third installment of which hit mixhuts last month. (It gets an independent commercial release next month.) For me, Mood Muzik 3 wasn’t the invigorating blast of pent-up rage that Mood Muzik 2 was, but that has more to do with the tape’s beats and surprising lack of sonic fidelity than Budden’s rapping, which hasn’t lost a step. Still, it’s a nice showcase of a rapper with a gift for intricate narratives, surprising punchlines, and courageously candid self-disclosure. If anyone should get a chance at putting out a second album, it’s this guy.

The last couple of mixtapes, this one in particular, they cover a whole lot of subjects, but one of the main ones seems to be your frustration with the industry and specifically the way you were kept on the shelf for so long at Def Jam.

Yeah, I’ve got to get out of coming across so angry.

But one of the things that’s really been interesting about it to me is that you seem so much more fired up and committed when you’re being treated like shit, when your label’s dicking you around. That seems to light a fire up under you.

It does. And it has. I’ve always felt like, you know, I love music. I love to make music, and even when I’m not making music, I just enjoy music of all genres. And when I first got signed, the potential was spotted immediately. And I felt like due to certain circumstances, I was just unable to release music. So for an artist, someone who loves music as much as myself, it can become rather frustrating.

]

Well, yeah, with total justification. I can’t think of anybody who got kept on the shelf for as long as you did, and your first album wasn’t a flop, especially by today’s standards. The way albums are selling now, it did pretty well.

See, and that’s exactly the problem. Because in today’s society, image and perspective is everything. The first album, it’s not like “Pump It Up” just came out. “Focus” came out, “Pump It Up” came out, “Fire” came out. There were some great songs on that album. That album went gold. It won all sorts of awards and accolades. It was Grammy-nominated. However, when you don’t release another album for so long, it’s perceived as a flop, or it’s perceived as this guy couldn’t make another record. Just the perception is really bad when that happens, through no fault of my own.

Do you mind running through a little bit of what happened between the release of that first album and finally getting your release? I know you were on Roc-A-Fella for like ten minutes before that fell apart.

Maybe five minutes. You know, at that time, what happened was everyone that was in charge and held some type of rank at Def Jam left Def Jam. The people that signed me were no longer there. At the time of the Roc-A-Fella signing, I was trying to just run with the flow, to get in where I could fit in and get in any situation that would benefit me with the situation I was already in. So I knew that Dame knew how to speak to people and knew how to handle things over at Def Jam, so I wanted to fuck with him. But then him and Jay had their ongoing situation happening, and at the time Jay was rumored to be the president. It’s like I was in a situation already and then stepped into one that had more shit involved in it. So that’s why the time was so short there. And then it was like, all right, let’s just go back to doing the straight Def Jam shit. We don’t want Jay or anybody else to treat me differently because of any ill will they may have towards Dame. And it didn’t really seem to matter at that point. Nothing mattered. Nothing that I did, no music that I made seemed to be good enough to garner some attention. I tried to practice patience and open-mindedness, so I was willing to take suggestions, and I was willing to listen and take advice and apply some things that people who were more experienced had to say and had to offer. And even that didn’t work. So when you got to the four-year mark or even the three-year mark of consistently bringing music to the record label and constantly hearing bullshit excuses as to why the music was not being released, it makes for a sour relationship. Eventually, playing devil’s advocate, why keep him around? He’s disgruntled. We obviously have no intention of releasing music from the guy. Eventually, you’d have to sever ties. I just wish that it maybe would’ve happened a little sooner. I’m fortunate to still be somewhat relevant and still be young enough that I’m not too old or too out-of-shape lyrically to still pursue my dreams.

You’ve been keeping yourself sharp lyrically on your own with these mixtapes. At this point, you’re a vital part of this New York mixtape scene, to the extent that it still exists. How do you feel about going back underground?

On one hand, it was disappointing that that became my only outlet to release music. But on the other hand, prior to me having a record deal, prior to me having hit records, I was on the mixtapes and I was on the streets. That’s where I got my attention from. So to even be able to have that to fall back on, because a lot of artists don’t, it’s a blessing. I try to look for the blessing in everything. So to be able to not have released a commercial album in five years, damn near, and to still get love and to still get respect with my peers, I’m fortunate.

One of the things you talk about on the new tape, and I’m sure everybody’s already asking you about this, is you go pretty heavily but still sort of respectfully at Jay-Z. That seems to be a really difficult line to walk, saying that you don’t appreciate things that someone has done lately but that he’s still extremely important to the history of this music. Was that a tough thing to get across? Because it’s not a dis track, at least not in the strictest sense of the term.

That’s what I keep telling people. I mean, I’ve made it known in just about any interview that I’ve ever done that I have the utmost respect for Jay-Z and I admire him and everything that he’s done and his lyrical ability. But on Def Jam, I begin to feel like he was just the wrong person for the job, for the position that he held. And I start to feel like that affected not only myself but quite a few other artists that were on the label. So then it becomes to feel almost like the school bully that comes to school and knows that he can beat everybody up and takes full advantage of that. So it’s like, “OK, I’m the greatest rapper in the world, and now I’m going to position myself to where I can make more money and move onto bigger and better things, but while I’m doing that I’m still going to release music, and I’m still going to demand all the attention that I should be trying to give to some of these newer artists that are underneath me.” So that to me is blatant disrespect. So then it’s natural to be like, “Fuck this nigga,” lyrically anyway. It was like, great, you sell out the Garden whenever you feel like doing it, but even if the handful of the people that hear Mood Muzik 3 get to hear what I have to say to that, that’s great. So I get into the booth, and it’s more just venting, just getting it out. But not to say, “Fuck you when I see you in the street,” so forth and so on. That wasn’t the route that I wanted to go.

Venting, getting stuff out in the booth, that’s something that you do often and beautifully. Is it is therapeutic for you to talk about stuff that you’re going through in verse?

Definitely. The booth over the years, or prior to the booth, just the pen and the pad was a best friend for me and an outlet for me, and that in turn turned into the booth. Often at times, I can go into the booth and say things that I would never even talk about in the privacy of my own home, amongst family and friends. So, I mean, it’s pretty weird, the comfortability level I have in the booth, knowing that plenty of people will hear what I have to say. But when I’m in the booth, it’s just me, myself and I, just me and a microphone. It’s pretty weird.

On Mood Muzik 2, there’s that one track where you’re talking about all the people that you’re on the same level as, that long tangent: “Em before 8 Mile, Shyne before the jail shit.” It was so cool to hear, because you’re naming all these great periods in people’s artistic lives, and you’re doing it from a fan’s perspective, but at the same time, you’re saying, like, “I’m there. That’s me.” How did you come to write that?

At the time, I was going through the whole Def Jam situation, not getting any attention, and I just felt shunned for whatever reason. Like I said, perception is definitely… I’d been signed since 2002, and I put an album out so fast. I think some people don’t understand how fast I came out. So because I hadn’t had an album out in so long, people compare me, in my mind anyway, to people I have no business being compared to. They start to compare me to a lot of up-and-coming artists. And even though I’m up-and-coming, a lot of the people have never released an album, that don’t have one third of the discography that I have. Even with one album, I have a lot of music out there that I’ve put out over the years. So that’s just a slap in the face. People that are nowhere near my level, not even just lyrically but people that don’t think anywhere near the level that I think, I was being compared to. And it’s disrespectful at that point. So I just felt like, let me talk about some of the people that I felt were just beyond great and in their prime and at the top of their game. And if you’re going to compare me to anybody, compare me to these people, because that’s where I’m headed. Not the people that are at the bottom of the barrel.

I wanted to ask you a little bit about your writing process. Mood Muzik 3 is a lot to digest. It’s a long tape, and you really just go off on it. You’ve got this really wide frame of reference, where even when you’re being personal and emotional, you’ve got these punchlines that are coming really fast, and sometimes I have no idea what you’re talking about. And sometimes when I do, it’s a reference to something that’s so recent and so random. Like, “You ain’t Kid Rock, can’t box a Tommy with your hands,” did you come up with that right when you saw the MTV awards?

Immediately. As soon as I saw the Awards, it popped into my head. But you know, that happens just in living life. I’m really big into sports, and it probably comes through the music. I watch a lot of TV. I watch a lot of movies, and I read the newspaper everyday. All of that stuff, the minute I see or hear something, it turns into a bar.

Do you write them down?

No. They just get stored in the mental rolodex somewhere. And when I begin to write, depending on the song, different ones relate to what I’m talking about. It just kind of happens. And sometimes I forget one of them. Like the Kid Rock one, I totally forgot about it until I was writing the record, and I said, “Oh shit, that was the line.” So, I mean, I do realize it’s a lot to digest and that it can sometimes fly over a lot of listeners’ heads, which is why I say Mood Muzik 3, or any of the Mood Muziks for that matter, is totally not for the casual listener.

One thing you seem to like to do is the tragic narrative. These stories that you tell, are they fiction, or are they people that you knew?

“3 Sides to a Story,” three fourths of it was not fiction; it was something that happened. It was just the end that I made up myself. On “Secrets,” I made the entire thing up.

What attracts you toward this form?

I’m a big fan of drama. I love drama. So to try to think of one, like a story from top to bottom, start to finish, and to have it be graphic and detailed, it’s one of my favorite things in hip-hop. All the stories Nas ever told, all the stories Kool G Rap ever told, just all of the great storytellers: to be a great one, you would have to come up with some pretty wild shit, whether it be fiction or non-fiction. So sometimes I like to try to step into that realm.

Is that something that you’ve thought about doing outside of rap?

Yeah, definitely. You know, I enjoy writing, and the writing doesn’t necessarily have to come through in the form of rap. It could be R&B music, it could be a script. I just enjoy writing.

On your mixtapes, you’ve spent a lot of time talking about what’s wrong with rap, how everybody’s being sequestered into specific categories, how if you don’t fit into these categories companies don’t know what to do with you, stuff like that. But what do you think is good about it right now, if anything?

The attention that you receive is always good. And that really would be it right this very second. For an artist like Kanye West to come out with the record that he came out with and sell a million records is amazing to me. Even the whole Kanye-vs.-50 campaign, for something like that to garner so much attention is great for hip-hop as a whole. Young black artists being able to move up the corporate ladder is great. But the music aspect right now, I don’t think it’s so great because of the lack of balance. I’m not one of those artists that come out and bash Southern MCs or crunk MCs or the MCs that come out with the one jingle. Do whatever you have to do, to each his own. It’s just no balance. Back in my day, for every Rakim there was a Kid N Play. For every LL Cool J, there was a Kool Moe Dee. There was always the balance. For whatever your mood was, you had something to go to. For every Kool G Rap, there was a Redhead Kingpin. And it’s just that the game lacks balance now. That’s the only problem. It seems that the MCs that would be able to bring the balance, they get shitted on, or they don’t get the attention that the other artists get, Kanye being the exception of course.

But you also have Talib Kweli coming out in the top five last year, UGK…

He came out in the top five because absolutely no one came out with him. That’s why he came out in the top five. And the album, which was pretty good, came and went. I mean, every single album he did, something was wrong with it. We knew more about D4L’s album coming out that we did about Talib’s album, or Hurricane Chris’s album.

Do you see that balance ever being able to right itself?

Definitely. I think we’re on the cusp of it righting itself right now, with artists like Common and Talib and Lupe and Kanye doing what he’s doing. Even sometimes the commercial artists step into that lane. So I definitely see it as a problem that’ll be rectified in the near future. Just right this very second, it’s not there. For me, anyway.

Talib and Common and them, they’ve got their niches that they fit into, but you’re harder than those guys. Do you ever foresee that being a problem? It seems like the people who don’t want to hear the Southern rap gravitate toward the fluffy peaceful stuff, and you’re neither one.

I know, and this has normally been a problem for the people in charge of marketing. But no, I don’t foresee it being an issue. I pride myself on being versatile and being able to do different things. So whereas where I was brought up has me not being quote-unquote fluffy, I still like to think that I can make music that can cater to the different audiences.

Mood Muzik 3‘s coming out next month, and what’s going to happen after that? Do you have a label lined up or anything?

No, I’ve pretty much done all of my shopping, had all of my sit-down chit-chats with the labels to see what my worth was. After Mood Muzik 3 is released, I’ve got an album coming out digitally called The Padded Room, probably sometime in May. And hopefully before 2009 hits, I will have found a home by then and will release my sophomore major release, if all goes according to plan.

Voice review: Amy Linden on Joe Budden’s Joe Budden

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Overdetermined to Win

When you buy a guest rapper you rent an image. So when Jenny came from the Block, she kept it real with Jadakiss’s crew the Lox. But she coulda brought the D-Block or the Ruff Ryders, coz Jadakiss collects posses like his girls keep jewelry. Better, he collects his posses like punchlines—not as his purpose, but just as a side effect. His image bricolage assembles things that are rap: neither funny nor scary nor real when viewed straight on, but spit with a gruff authority that projects uproarious menace when viewed from the corner of the ear.

The Lox got their break signing as Puff Daddy’s token of authenticity (which doesn’t make their authenticity any more tokenistic, or street publicity any less fetishistic) and got their second break campaigning for “freedom” from said contract—but was it the flashy style that got them down or the poor payout? Ask Jada and they’re probably the same thing.

So: still commercial rap then, whether on Bad Boy or later Ruff Ryders, but really good at it. Whatever the beat, whatever the tempo, Jada wants you to kneel with a gun to your temple. Like his message is intense though his rhymes are simple. Moving the units and stories to his kinfolk. So he says he keeps things real, like explaining that people is lonely and they need company coz they miserable. So a gun is real—you can sell that. And a crack rock. And now, “emotional depth” is real and you can sell that too (unless you’re Joe Budden). “Why I can’t come through in the pecan Jag?/Why did crack have to hit so hard?” Gee, Jada, they’re both important questions, and I dunno, but you sound real deep, maaan.

Old-skool is real too—like, hardcore critics-love-that-shit real. Kiss of Death‘s title track pushes things forward with chunky post-grindin’ stutter-funk, but meanwhile Pharrell brings the ’70s groove on “Hot Sauce to Go,” “Shine” is as close to Snoop Dogg rhyming over the “Good Times” beat as we’ll get, and on “Gettin’ It In,” Kanye rocks that discofied George of the Jungle bongo counter-beat that hip-hop all but forgot. Speaking of which, “Real Hip Hop” with two-thirds of the Lox turns Swizz’s Teflon clockwork into primo fanfare, and “Shoot Outs” with a different two-thirds is a clamoring mix-tape noise-wall of Terminator X-ish sonic brutalism.

Do I sound cynical? Sorry. I mean, this stuff sells for a reason, like Jada sez: “shit don’t just don’t happen, shit happen for a reason,” and we know he’s living fulla meaning. See, the man made his image with purpose, and remade it to go for the ring. Just like he kept up his street rep with four D-Block mix tapes, some battles with G-Unit, and innumerable guest slots in the past few years. His story to tell is that he knows how to sell, and in that rhythmic enterprise, even listening is a cut of vicarious participation. Like he sez on “Welcome to D-Block,” “We don’t play with the lizards, we make phrases up and say ’em exquisite.”

Two-thirds through the new album, everything collapses on itself in the haunting “By Your Side.” Monotone synth heartbeats and answer-back diva vocals (Heatmakerz-style) murmur behind the impressionistic narrative. First Jada’s at your side as a friend, then a threat. Then you better have a strong team by your side, then your moms at the hospital by your side, then those who want your cash tryina get there, then your cash itself you should keep there, then he’s dead and his girl’s gotta keep his little man by her side. Images and stories slide through view like a high-concept video; midway in, the beats pile onto one another, the vocals layer and accelerate, then Jada lets loose with an exuberant laugh. It’s soulful, it’s hard, it’s real, and then . . . it’s transcendent. Throw your hands in the air if you sling crack rocks. A wop bop a loo bop a pop pop a glock.

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Bring the Pain

About a year ago, a hard-working street team slapped up promotional snipes that asked: “Who is Joe Budden?” According to a highly subjective survey (conducted on strolls from my house in Fort Greene to the Fulton Mall), the posters were affixed to every mailbox, boarded-up door, and vacant wall in downtown Brooklyn; in less time then it takes to spell h-y-p-e, the answer was on the lips and in the headphones of mixtape connoisseurs. A then 20-year-old Joe Budden, cursed with the most dullsville moniker in the history of hip-hop if not pop itself, earned the right to have his name plastered all over town thanks to a string of cameos on Desert Storm (DJs Clue and Envy)-affiliated compilations. The Queens-born, Jersey City-raised rapper reigned as the mixtape go-to guy, and his output was so prodigious that, by the fall of 2002, Budden had enough material to warrant his own best-of collection: one not officially approved by any label, but hey. This is hip-hop. There’s a thin line between branding and bootlegging.

Budden made his mark with “Focus,” which pops up on his self-titled official debut album, originally slated to drop back when all those snipes first appeared. Anchored by hand claps, ricocheting basslines (as if some dude was twisting a knob back and forth like a radio dial), clanging beats, and echoing “woos,” “Focus”—produced by newbie White Boy, who did much of Budden’s CD—sounds less like a single than like a partially mastered demo recorded on masking tape and played through two cans of SpaghettiOs. Lyrically, “Focus” is pure street-scattershot: Budden, whose flow has the cocky cadence of someone just popping shit off shit but knowing he sounds hot doing it, spits out sonnets like “still on your block with it/street ball and the blacktop with it/white tee black socks filled/pop the trunk let the bass knock with it.” Like his current radio staple “Pump It Up” (whose horn-blessed Just Blaze production is Spectorian in comparison), “Focus” celebrates little more than being young, gifted, and diesel, and there’s no denying the sly seduction of Budden’s voice. Yet though he can slang odes to strippers, old school, and pussy-eating with the best, Budden warrants the buzz when he brings the pain and trust. This kid has pain to spare.

Far be it from me to suggest that hip-hop stars are any nuttier than the rest of the male population (or musicians in general), but most rappers could use a healthy dose of medication—and not the kind rolled up and inhaled. Budden has issues, to be sure. Both his parents used drugs, and Joe became addicted to angel dust as a teen, a situation he address on the ghostly “Calm Down” when he intones, “I took drugs, laced it with things/but you an addict yourself . . . I needed someone to blame in my mind/I thought if you and dad never used dope I would come out fine.” By the time Budden was through high school he’d done jail, rehab, and therapy. In an industry that champions erratic behavior, paranoia, and delusion, and where self-absorption often passes for introspection, Joe Budden’s years on the couch and six years of sobriety (dude don’t even smoke la) give him a maturity and thoughtfulness usually reserved for singer-songwriters, not up and coming microphone fiends.

What more could you ask for? A playa able to rock the party and deconstruct the psychodrama. MC Freud would be proud.