Are You in That Mood Yet?It's a release. Almost therapeutic. But it's not the Cannibal Corpse kill-myself or the I-need-to-pour-my-heart-out acoustic schmaltz. This is less romantic, rawer. More human. Joe Budden's recent Mood Muzik mixtape series is an anti-corporate juxtaposition of angry sentiments and minor key instrumentals served up in the coldest way possible. Throughout the three-part series, Joe details for the public what the typical artist won't, what your favorite radio friendly rapper would lose sponsorship deals over.
by Jared Feldman, NYU '10
"I got a drug problem, that I ain't tending to
Because I got enough problems, and my solution is to stuff Valium
But if something goes wrong with that,
It's back to PCP and so long to rap
I'm depressed lately..."
His morbid, poisoned cries make clear what his feelings are. But it is that openness that grabs hold of my gut and squeezes it tight. Most artists simply say they are having a bad day and feel down, that they'll sing a sad song just to turn it around. Joe tells me what drugs he's planning to off himself with. He is painfully explicit no matter what. And I root for him. I relate to him. What else do you do with a guy who speaks so passionately and exudes such ingenuousness. On occasion he releases up-tempo dance tracks, but these are only momentary escapes from his pain. And then the next installment of the Mood Muzik series drops and the bullshit ends. The series is Joe taking the protocol and saying fuck you to it. Forget song structure--Joe frequently disregards the standard 16-bar rap stanza and has verses that run as along as 100 bars without a chorus. "A lot of artists keep their art and personal lives separate. I can't do that. Rap is more therapeutic for me. Whatever I'm going through or feeling I put that into a song." And hence the tracks sometimes play like delirious rants or awkward portrayals of depression. The average listener may find the tracks monotonous or uninteresting. But for me when someone so talented is shameless enough to bare it all to the microphone, I'm glued to the speaker every time.
Joe was born in Spanish Harlem and grew up in Queens until he was 11, when he moved to Jersey City. By 16 Joey was convinced that he could calm himself down through the powers of music rather than the use of drugs, and henceforth began his journey as an emcee. After he'd honed his craft in local battles and showcases for a year, the indie Desert Storm label soon offered Joe and his crew, the On Top Music family, financing to go into a real studio to cut demos. Joe broke onto the scene in 2003 through his infectious Just Blaze produced smash "Pump It Up." The song was Joe clearly chasing a buck, but the buck kept running. Although his self-titled debut album went gold, with the song nominated for a Grammy and licensed in movies and TV shows alike, after a series of delays Def Jam never even released his follow up album and recently dropped him from its roster altogether. Plagued by frustrating setbacks and unexplained happenings, Joe turned to the mix-tape circuit where his unsigned artist momentum first snowballed, and created the first installment of the Mood Muzik series entitled MM1: The Worst of Joe Budden. Parts two and three followed in two year increments over the next four years, with equally absurd and defiant titles, MM2: Can It Get Any Worse? and MM3: For Better or Worse respectively.
It is by virtue of the unabridged truths stitched into his stories, whether in admitting his own character faults or pointing out mine, that he fires back at the commercialism and major label system that first brought him notoriety and then spit him out. Narrative in impulse, nostalgic yet restless in theme and content, Joe Budden exudes contempt for the mainstream while still trying to figure how to reach the masses. But what's quality hip hop without a little contradiction? He is less rapper and more creature of habit, possessed by manic notions of depression and isolation that force me to grasp his pain. I don't even need to like the music, just merely fathom its beautiful relationship with Joe's eloquently dreadful manner of speaking. With its harsh and rugged timbre, Joey's voice is consistent to a fault. The same emotional delivery and language manipulation that makes me grip onto his dejected stories comes across as forced and insincere when it tries to get me to dance. How do I believe you're ready to party with me when you just told me you wanna switch from Valium to PCP and might be ready to call it quits?
Somber music isn't for everybody. Tunes about depression and denial can't be. Rarely would mainstream listeners choose to escape to panicked recitings of label woes, girl troubles, and overwhelming anxiety rather than a "Pump It Up" type track. The Mood Muzik series plays like Joe's diary entries rather than hip hop songs. His life feeds the music and the ultra-personal music seem designed to feed right back to his life. I listen to his songs and hear him talk specifically about the people around him and wonder, aren't they hearing this? His possessed howling and unflinchingly direct words seem designed to alienate him from his own crowd, particularizing present issues with close friends and family rather than side-stepping names with hypothetical instances and non-specifics the way so many of his contemporaries do. Joe Budden's music is like the everyday person's diary. Even if you are glamorous and polished on the surface, if I pull your diary I'd bet I'd find some deep shit in there. You'd rather keep your secrets to yourself. Joey makes a living divulging his to whoever will listen. If the music were any less believable and well intentioned, I'd call him a sellout and lame. But when he tells me he has had the same clothes on for days because it speaks to how he is feeling, that type of unrefined tenderness is more than fucking believable, it is grossly touching and disturbing all at once.
Given his fuck-the-world attitude, I don't blame Joe for demanding to know if we're "in that mood yet?", his tag line throughout the Mood Muzik series. He struggles mightily with ambiguities in his personal life and career, frequently rapping "I'm stuck somewhere between the real and the fakeness." Joe's gloomy mannerisms and intense storytelling refuse you the luxury of sitting back and enjoying. Rather he needs you in that mindset to appreciate the balanced level of intricacy and sore-throat-cough-type rawness with which he delivers his emotion. With brutally honest gestures and snarling topical expositions on the industry's evils, it feels more like he is confiding in me than rapping at me.
"Why am I meeting so many backstabbers
Why every time that I crash I go faster
Past is a disaster when your house is see through
Learn to close your eyes in case the glass shatters
I'm just saying there's a million more pages
But my stupid ass keeps thinking I'm on the last chapter. "
The progression and development of the series is evident through the beats Budden chooses to rhyme over. On most of Mood Muzik 1 he jumps on other people's tracks, while the second installment is more evenly balanced between original songs and freestyles over popular instrumentals. The first and second mix-tapes were so well-received, critically and by fans, that I assume he recognized that there was an interest in hearing more of him rather than just his lyrics over random, already-used beats. It was rumored that he used MM2 and MM3 as outlets for material he was recording for his follow-up album The Growth but that Def Jam sat on, and consequently Mood Muzik 3, which was released this past February, consists entirely of original material.
Although the content is very strong, the recording quality is for the most part atrocious. I'm assuming the fact that these projects are all self-financed, so that he could not afford a quality mixer or engineer. Or maybe a polished surface was not his main concern. Image isn't everything, and the power is less in the perception and more in the mood Joe is creating through lyrics and instrumentation. I know producers who won't give the series a chance because the songs are so poorly balanced--they make the big studios where they were recorded sound like home Pro Tools rigs. Yet to the small pocket of Budden fans who follow him religiously it never matters, because you don't love Joey for the prettiness of his sound. That's almost an oxymoron. And Joe really doesn't care what you think of it either.
"I'm underground gangsta rap/commercial
Call this whatever as long as you get the message
Call this whatever as long as it ain't neglected
As long as it gets respected."
The epitome of Joe's work is "Walk With Me," on MM1: The Worst Of Joe Budden. The song's core is a treated string resonance fixated on the same pulsating note throughout, almost hauntingly, while swarming violins surround and relentlessly taunt Joe's idiosyncrasies. Sarcastic pleas and heartfelt criticisms directed at everyone from his Jersey hometown boys he doesn't trust to his son's mother are accented by a nameless background singer's melodic echoes. "Ever since I got signed I can't tell what's real anymore." It feels like Joe is pacing. Like he's actually taking a walk with the listener, but by no means is this a good trip. It feels like a worst fear coming true. Like that split second when you're lost inside a horrific feeling of turmoil, engrossed in the trepidation of a tragedy. "I see a couple things wrongs with the way that I'm living, so come and walk with me, I just need a second opinion." Joe's asking for my help and that turns my stomach inside out. Like watching a car crash, seeing it about to happen but I just can't look away. I see him as the truthful and most sincere part of myself. In a space where artistry is typically defined by provocative images of grandeur, to exist and speak so candidly and bluntly about real life troubles is beyond the scope of contemporary hip-hop music. Did he feel his second album would never come? Did his gut say that rappers from his hometown would later betray him and throw dirt on his name? Ask Joe what he wants people to walk away with after listening to his music and he replies, "A better feel of me. Not to feel me like I'm an artist but that I'm a regular person. On mixtapes my moniker was 'Regular Joe' . . . I'm regular and down to earth and also very serious about what I do. This is the music I've been wanting to make all my life."
As a producer I've got my bones to pick with Joey. He's great at emotion but sometimes he can be repetitive in his delivery. Study his music and it is apparent he hasn't yet mastered his breath control in a way that allows him to string series of multi-syllabic words together. Lately he has been doing things outside his norm to show his diversity--the recent "4 Walls" is in 3/4 time and Joe raps it in triplets. He recently signed a deal with Amalgam Digital, an online music distributor of urban music, and released a new version of MM3 with four brand new songs plus exclusive content. He is currently in the studio finishing up his second official album, Padded Room, to be released through Amalgam as well. The reception of that release will dictate whether he will try to sign to another major label in the future. Although unlikely, he has not ruled it out. "If I were to go the major route, again, attention would probably be the first and foremost. You want attention, you want support, you want to be treated properly, and I don't wanna have to go anywhere and teach people how to treat me. As far as money, acclaim and fame, those things are a plus-accolades-they're all great. But like I said: most important to me right now is being able to release music."
With the Mood Muzik Series, Joe Budden has created a space where in which he is comfortable disclosing his darkest concerns. Joe's genius is not his witty wordplay, although his metaphors are often extremely clever. And yes the content is all there, but Joe's genius isn't what the songs talk about either. Joe's brilliance is his ability to create a mood for the listener. Joe has blessed us with a three album conversation about one of the darkest periods of his life, a blunt reality check, a discourse in the lost feelings of music, and that power is what draws his listeners in. Joey's explicitness and tell-it-like-it is talent settles me into an unfastened, vulnerable state, a desolate mind-fuck of a mood where I feel there has to be something better than this but can't turn it off. And that is right where Joey wants me.
"Tell me what you supposed to do when yourself ain't reliable
You looking in the mirror but yourself ain't desirable
Need another dude beside yourself on the side of you
Can't listen to yourself, na, all he do is lie to you
Now tell me who's supposed to have your best interest
When shit ain't looking up, you start having less interest
Trying to leave the hood but the slugs keep coming
Keep chasing the buck, but the buck keep running
I don't trust nobody, I don't love nobody
I don't fuck with nobody but me, I can't lose
No moves will be funny, and I'll never let myself down
How so? I don't expect too much from me"
-Joe Budden "Stained"
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