Joe Budden is currently many thing to many people: Rap’s PewDiePie, Captain Twitter Fingers, VH1’s Romeo and most recently – the incessant Drake disser. Regardless of your knowledge or opinion of Joe Budden, his latest and one of his most triumphant offerings, Rage & The Machine, is ultimately a demonstration that he is one of rap’s estranged OGs. With the aid of frequent collaborator araabMUZIK, Rage is cohesive, pensive and – as always – lyrically compelling.
To properly put this album in context for the readers who are unfamiliar with the enigma that is Joe Budden, I will give you a (fairly) quick timeline of his “hand-me-downs” (“More Of Me”) discography, before getting down to the nitty-gritty.
It certainly wouldn’t be an understatement to say that Joe’s rap career has been a bit of a rollercoaster. After sending a banging demo tape to Def Jam consisting of tracks like “If You Real,” he was snapped up quickly. However, for major labels in the early Noughties it was all about getting up-tempo club bangers to resonate – Just Blaze being the most sought-after curator of such anthems. Thus, on Budden’s debut LP, his infamous, radio-pandering single “Pump It Up” was born; every DJ who was anybody was spinning this track. Thereafter, it seemed Joe’s fate was sealed: His name would always be inextricably bound to that song; he was ‘that “Pump It Up” rapper.’ This, however, was a bit of a shame. Anybody that had listened to the entirety of his self-titled debut (despite its flaws), knew tracks like “Walk With Me” were an exhibition of anecdotal articulacy, and perhaps more importantly – raw emotion.
Alas, Budden’s relationship with Def Jam turned sour and his sophomore LP was shelved, leaving Joe to wander the mixtape wilderness for almost a decade. Sorry – did I say wander? I mean stomped on: Joe’s Mood Muzik series received widespread critical acclaim. On these tapes, Joe did it all. He elucidated impossibly intricate hood tales (“Three Sides To A Story”), littered tracks with every conceivable literary device (“Dumb Out”), and had the uncanny ability to spit for eight minutes exhibiting unparalleled intimacy, yet never boring the listener (“All of Me”). In fact, Mood Muzik 3 was so good it became an album. The songs were the same; they merely amputated DJ On Point’s obnoxious tags (thank fuck!).
Despite Joe’s often poor ear for beats, his overzealous DJ hosts, his sartorially-challenged wardrobe and his inability to find and stick to a particular sonic strategy – he was still lovable. If you liked Joe, despite his flaws, it was for two reasons: 1) He could spit like a fucking champ, and 2) He put all his cards on the table – digging up and revealing some of the most harrowing fragments of his fucked up psyche.
Moving forward, then, off the strength of his tapes, Joe’s cult fan base continued to grow. Meanwhile, he started a rap supergroup: Slaughterhouse. Royce da 5’9, Crooked I and Joell Ortiz linked up with Joe on a track that would soon denote the quartet, culminating in an alliance glued together with a shared hatred for skinny jeans – and a penchant for lyrical bravado. After signing to Eminem’s Shady 2.0 imprint, their first lyrical exhibition was in a 2011 BET cypher – one which I will never forget. Spitting over East Flatbush Project’s “Tried By 12” instrumental, Budden delivered an exquisite collection of bars (which I urge you to listen to here).
Budden, then, along with his new gang, were back in the limelight. He released a brilliant (and slept on) tape, A Loose Quarter, followed by the Love Lost series: Two albums and a mixtape that continued to detail his struggles with depression, drugs and of course – women (mainly Tahiry). However, there was an underlying issue that the Love Lost series shared: The songs were too formulaic. From the bait pop-crossover tracks on No Love Lost, to the desperately sad cuts on All Love Lost – they nearly all contained sixteens followed by, often jarring, eight bar R&B hooks. The reason for this was arguably twofold: Firstly, Joe was still trying to adjust to the ever-fluctuating hip-hop landscape. Secondly, Budden’s infamous “emo” fan-base simply couldn’t stand him being happy; the esteemed poignancy in his tracks was often a manifestation of his poor mental health and the various tribulations that plagued his personal life. Therefore, these contemporary structural blueprints were a simple way in which Joe could generate affecting songs, while catering to a broader demographic.
So, we arrive at Rage, a project that deviates somewhat from Joe’s recent offerings. Now 36 years old, Joe eschews the bait pop-crossover singles, the gaudy trap cuts and the A&R-adored song structures – even the hopelessly melancholic introspection. Instead, with the aid of MPC master, araabMUZIK, the duo formulate more nuanced iterations of such tracks, punctuated with Joe’s patented stream-of-consciousness storytelling and astute, satirical observations. Above all, the duo prove one thing: A happy Joe and a happy fan-base can coexist.
Initiating his career at the end of the “Golden Era” of hip-hop, Joe has spat through a fairly volatile fifteen years – but on Rage he’s not playing catch-up anymore: He understands that much of his current fan-base are young, but instead of pandering to them – he chooses to educate them, yet this rarely comes across as preachy or overly-nostalgic. On “Uncle Joe,” Budden wrestles with the fact that he is now considered “an old rapper,” ultimately deciding to wear that label with pride. Over wistful piano riffs, Joe sets himself apart from the youthful fan-base he addresses by elucidating their disparate frames of reference: “Supreme,” to Joe, is a gangster from Queens; similarly, “B.M.F.” denotes an infamous drug-trafficker from Miami – Big Meech – not a song by Rick Ross. Realising he’s probably going over their head, he bursts out with: “Different from what they sellin’ y’all / Fuck am I tellin’ y’all?” However, instead of remaining flustered, he chooses to be democratic: “I’m with the turn-up / I just like Biggie’s shit.”
Joe revisits his droppin’-gems-on-the-porch mode of spitting for various tracks on Rage. On the skit-like “Forget,” araab flips a gorgeous sample of the Stylistics’ “Your Love’s Too Good To Be Forgotten,” while Joe details the number of rapper’s names he can’t remember, blaming it on his age. However, the irony is palpable: Joe has clearly grown weary of the industry and the shoddy artists that constitute it. As the sample fades, we move seamlessly into “I Gotta Ask,” where the vocal samples go up a few octaves and Joe gives a little stylistic nod to Hov. Interestingly, he uses this space to give a frank, albeit rather tongue-in-cheek, explanation of his recent string of Drake disses: “How many MCs must get dissed / In the great words of Buckshot / My answer’s ‘Why the fuck not?’” Joe is fundamentally hip-hop’s equivalent of a xenophobic pensioner who says what he likes because at his age – who the fuck cares? This is what makes Rage so special.
A great deal of credit, however, must be given to the man behind the boards: araabMUZIK. The young beatsmith slaved away with Joe in the MC’s New Jersey hideout for months, which probably went a long way to building on the duo’s already evident chemistry. Despite his luscious samples and the unique swing on his drums, it is araab’s ability to keep the whole tone of the album on an even-keel that really shines through. The singles “Flex,” “By Law,” and “I Gotta Ask” don’t jut out like before (Love Lost series), neither do the explorative synths and crunching bass on turn-up anthem “Wrong One.” Rage finds Joe flitting between a variety of song structures and archetypal styles, yet araab makes them all cohere with ease – correcting the key flaw with recent Budden records.
As the album draws to a close, Budden delivers a tear-jerker for the Stans in the form of “I Wanna Know.” Over a beautiful, albeit recycled (Freddie Gibbs – “Shame”), Manhattans loop, Joe triumphantly reconciles himself to the personal issues that he has detailed throughout his career; the problems with his mother, his exes and son are all put to bed, leaving Joe at peace: “Right now I stand in a place I never stood before / Finally filled the void in my life / I wasn’t good before / Fuckin’ with these hoes / that energy I was puttin’ forth / God this is more like the fuckin’ love I was lookin’ for.” In light of this track, the artwork makes a bit more sense: A big “Thank you” to his Deity, and a little “Fuck you” to his critics (probably me included).