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.