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On a spring evening in 2005, Camu Tao stood in a nook across from the Max Fish bar in the Lower East Side, supping from a stash of PBR cans he'd stowed in his jacket pocket. Metro, his fellow MC in the hip-hop duo S.A. Smash, stood beside him; soon, El-P and Aesop Rock, their cohorts on pioneering NYC underground-rap label Definitive Jux, joined in, and they all made their way inside, leaving behind a trail of crushed cans. There, the quartet chased beers with shots of Jameson and generated the drunken patter of rap nerds: The conversation took in the unheralded genius of Camp Lo's second album, an unreleased Stezo project that dissed E.P.M.D., bad-taste jokes about the relationship between Jermaine Dupri and Kris Kross, and Metro's story about the time Björk kissed him in a dive bar whose name he wouldn't reveal.
Tall, gregarious, and constantly grinning, Camu was a beacon of entertainment. On exiting one of the bar's grunge-encrusted bathrooms, he stuffed a long piece of toilet tissue up his left nostril, parodying a familiar Redman photograph from The Source. As the bar tab increased, they resembled nothing more than four close friends out for a good time. But just three years later, the 30-year-old rapper would pass away from lung cancer—a condition he hid from his friends, instead offering cryptic messages about his debilitating state through the solo album he was working on but hadn't quite completed: the soundtrack to his own death.
That album, King Of Hearts, has now been released via Def Jux/Fat Possum in a deliberately unpolished and unfinished state. "He was dying and all along making this record," laments El-P, once more sitting at a table in the corner of Max Fish, nursing a midday Stella Artois. "We kept it faithful to the source material. The lyrics take on a new meaning when he sings, 'Death, where have you been all my life?' "
Raised in Columbus, Ohio, Camu ingratiated himself into the Def Jux circle in the late '90s through a brash move: Having somehow procured label boss El-P's phone number, he cold-called him. They hit it off. Soon, Camu, who had made a ripple in his hometown scene as part of the MHz crew with RJD2, Copywrite, and Tage, ditched his job at a water-testing plant to move to Brooklyn, where, as El puts it, he partied and "ran amok."
This was back when independent New York rap directly opposed the commercial scene: You were either Puffy or El-P, wore a shiny suit or a backpack. Fans bought into the dichotomy. So while Camu's contemporaries dropped albums in tune with their perceived milieu, full of tracks more concerned with boasts of lyrical purity than actually having fun, his Smashy Trashy project with Metro, an album full of upbeat, party-leaning songs, failed to resonate. "It wasn't what people wanted to hear from Def Jux," El says now.
So Camu searched for his voice. He toyed with impromptu alias projects like Blair Cosby, a conceptual comedic fusion inspired by Blair Underwood and Bill Cosby. Then, frustrated with an underground circuit fellow MC and one-time roommate Cage describes as "a bunch of guys rapping about how great they are," Camu decided to "re-examine the idea of rap-rock," big hooks and all. The lane was open: He started to sing, in a timbre akin to André 3000's high-strung squawk, and recorded songs into Garage Band on his laptop, often through its built-in mic. He interpolated "My Funny Valentine" and Elvis Costello's "Big Boys." King of Hearts began to take shape.
During this period, from 2005 onwards, friends started to suspect something was wrong. El-P and Cage both noticed that Camu, usually an insatiable ball of energy, would sleep all day on tour. Eating even soup would cause him to double over in pain. "But he didn't want to put it on us," says El, who believes Camu was diagnosed late because he was scared: He knew something was wrong and was waiting until the last minute. Once diagnosed, he finally confided in his friends; given two weeks to live, he lasted a year and a half, finally succumbing on May 25, 2008.
Aesop Rock broke the news onstage at a show in Minneapolis; soon after, El-P announced that Def Jux would release King of Hearts. But instead, in-fighting broke out. Multiple accusations emerged from within the camp, based around alleged attempts to profit from Camu's death. The very private debate raged publicly on MySpace and various message boards. Asked what prompted what he calls the "bickering within the crew," El-P pauses, then says, "It's really tough to process death. I regret that stuff went down. But there's no manual—you don't know what you're supposed to do. People get defensive, angry, emotional. It's like any family. You just have to forgive us all for not knowing how to deal and move on."
For Camu's musical family, King of Hearts is part relief and part fulfillment of a friend's last wish. Cage, who has lived with the record since 2005, says he no longer listens to it: "It's too haunting—there are too many messages in there." Preserved from files on Camu's laptop and sequenced as listed in an iTunes playlist, it's a respectful release without peer in a hip-hop world that regularly scours the vaults of its dead. But it's also like reading someone's diary, only to realize they've passed away when the words stop mid-sentence. It's an album of ghostly ellipses: songs without verses, ideas for choruses left hanging, raw thoughts unedited. It's almost taboo. "Fuck Me," the album's closing song, is Camu's bare voice amid a layer of audio hiss. When he sings, "Come on and kill me," it's tempting to turn it off: You're not sure you should be hearing this.
But it's the possibility of King of Hearts that stings most. Conceived in 2005, it foreshadowed rap's increasing tolerance of indie rock. "When Camu got sick, Gnarls Barkley came out," Cage recalls. "Everyone on the inside was like, 'Oh, shit, someone else is doing it.' "
"The fucked up thing is, if it had come out two years ago, it would have been unprecedented," says El-P, lighting a cigarette and settling into his booth. "Now, lots of people are making the transition [from rapping to singing]. You have Kid Cudi, who incorporated that. Camu couldn't have done this in the MHz days, and there are people now who won't accept him, but Camu wouldn't give a shit." He taps ash into his empty beer bottle. "I just wish Camu was here to see he was doing good."