You probably know him from the smash-hit Pump It Up. Or, if you’re into R&B, you’ve heard him on Marques Houston’s Clubbin’. Or Whatever U Want with Christina Milian. When you’re someone who can’t get enough of reality TV, and these people exist, you could have caught a glimpse of the guy on Love & Hip Hop. You probably don’t know him from his emotional songs. But Joe Budden is the most emo-rapper in the game. No, not even Drake can compete with Budden’s deep, dark story-telling tracks.

I can hear you thinking, ‘comparing Joe Budden to Drake is completely insane’. And when you look at the numbers, you’re probably right. While every record Drizzy has released went straight to number one, Joey’s albums have never cracked the top five.  Even the re-release of So Far Gone, Drake’s critically acclaimed mixtape, did better than any of Budden’s albums and I’m sure the upcoming View From The 6 will sell more copies than Joe Budden’s catalogue combined. But there’s one aspect of their carreers where Budden trumps Aubrey: turning real emotions into great lines and songs.

Joe Budden, who grew up in Jersey, is honest on his records. Even bragging about his riches, something hiphop is (in)famous for, isn’t him: “I ain’t a millionaire, won’t see me in Forbes, son / Life is like a beach chair, when you can afford one”. Talking tough about being locked up? Not Joey: “In my past though, been to jail, I ain’t enjoy it / So why would I stand behind the mic and exploit it?”.1 You thought he would be happy with a record deal, like every artist would be? Think again: “I got signed having the answers, then the question changed” on Hiatus or “Wanted a deal, I got it and couldn’t deal with it”, from All Of Me, which is in fact one long quotable. I mean, just read these lyrics. You don’t need a beat.

Was mad as a fuck, didn’t even show it
Yesterday was better off, didn’t even know it
Complete role reversal so it’s useless these days
TV got real, music went fake, please help her for God’s sake
When I proposed to the game I figured life was merry
Five years later I’m feelin’ like Tyler Perry
Maybe I’m exhausted, maybe I just lost it
Maybe I should pick up a pen and try n’ force it
Same old story, guts and no glory, they tryna low ball me, do him like Joe Torre
I reintroduced myself to the world: I’m Jerz
I’m an artist, I paint pictures, I don’t rhyme words
More than a rapper I pay attention to detail
But how I do in retail tells me if I prevail
Leonardo ain’t seen these trials and tribulations
Foul situations with some mild stipulations

On his mixtapes, especially the Mood Muzik series, Joe shows time and time again how brilliant he is when he creates stories. His punchlines don’t knock you out, they break your heart. Let’s get back to another passage of All Of Me:

I was damn near in tears checkin’ my messages
I got goosebumps all over my skin
She said, Mouse I highly doubt that I’ll ever see you again
Hope everything is well kid
You see I’m just findin’ out I have a brain tumor but I never felt it
The doctor’s giving me three weeks to live
Not three weeks ’til I die, that’s three weeks to give
I just wanna tell you that I love you and I care
I wish you all the best throughout the rest of your career
And then she broke into tears
I pressed seven, took the phone from my ears
Sometimes the simplest of things people need it
But I ain’t call back in fear of being speechless
What was I to put her at ease with
I picked a real bad time to be strategic

It’s rap at her finest: rhyming words to tell a heartbreakingly relatable story, with some self reflection over a serviceable beat. On the recently released Some Love Lost2 he dumps his emotions on six lengthy tracks. It isn’t a happy listen, it might even be his darkest work till date. The center piece is Only Human, with frequent collaborator Emanny, where he shares his typical dark thoughts:

I ain’t tell her just the other day that that gun was in my lap
Pen and pad in my hand, and I was writing a note
Didn’t get far, as soon as I wrote down “mom” I just stopped
Couldn’t lie to her, couldn’t figure out how to say bye to her
Couldn’t explain the “why” to her
Couldn’t picture her getting a call or somebody saying her son had died to her

In a review of Some Love Lost for HipHopDX, Andre Grant wrote “(…) Joe’s change in style (to the autobiographical slaughter it is now) is interesting”, which I find interesting. What change in style? There’s only a change in style if you discard all the mixtapes Budden’s released and only compare it to his studio albums. The style of Some Love Lost is no different than that of Mood Muzik 3 or Mood Muzik 4. The first track of MM3 is called Dear Diary, it doesn’t get more autobiographical than that. This isn’t to critique the otherwise excellent review of Grant, but it pinpoints the exact problem of the self-proclaimed “definiton of insanity”: if a professional writer for a hiphop outlet doesn’t know what Joe Budden is, who does? 

While Drake has conquered the hearts of the masses with his honest, introspective raps, Budden never even tried. His studio albums and singles don’t reflect the real Joe Budden. Take four minutes to listen to one of his singles, She Don’t Put It Down with Lil’ Wayne and Tank:

It’s not a bad track3, but you can see the record label machine working. Hot producer on the boards? Check.4 Featuring another rap star? Double check. R&B singer on the hook? Check. A video with scantily clad women in the club? Check. If you’d ask my mother to direct a rap video, she’d check those same boxes. And that says pretty much everything about what’s wrong with Joe putting out a single like this. Budden, or the people behind him -I don’t know-, dumbs it down in an attempt to score. Sure, Pump It Up was a smash, but he could never repeat that success. It’s not like he didn’t try. With every album, the generic singles came and failed. Unlike Drake -who has used his ’emo’-label to expand his audience and reel in R&B-fans and women- Joe gives his best tracks away for free to a small audience that’s familiar with websites as DatPiff et al.

The difference between Studio Budden and Mixtape Joe is enormous. Of course, rappers like Weezy or even Whiz Khalifa differntiate between studio albums and mixtapes, but with Budden it feels like he’s two different persons. I’m not saying Joe Budden could have had the same succes Drake is enjoying right now if he had just released different songs. He isn’t a singer or a womanizer5 like Drake. He’s a human being with real issues – addiction, depression, heartbreak, loss – who just  happens to express his emotions through words and rhymes. That’s what Joe Budden is and that’s who he should be all the time.

  1. One of my favorite facts about Joe Budden? He missed a Slaughterhouse gig in his hometown once because he had to spend a night in jail over not paying a parking ticket.
  2. A great 36 minute mixtape disguised as an appetizer-EP for his upcoming All Love Lost, the follow-up album to No Love Lost.
  3. It isn’t particularly good, either.
  4. The song is produced by T-Minus, who was fresh off Kendrick Lamar’s  Swimming Pools (Drank)  and working with T.I. and A$AP Rocky.
  5. Although he did get around.

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