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Joe Budden has an uncanny knack for keeping himself in the conversation. In an era when torrents, tweets, and leaks battle for the average hip-hop fan’s attention, Budden seems to have positioned himself on every corner of the internet. A quick-spitting, sometimes introspective MC known for his battle rapping skills and his prolificacy, the Jersey City rapper was formerly signed to Def Jam, where his self-titled 2003 debut sold more than 400,000 copies.
But after Def Jam shelved his follow-up, Budden left the label and subsequently changed his game plan to focus on what rappers facing irrelevancy have often done to drum up buzz: starting beefs. But between pissing off everyone from Jay-Z to Ed O.G., Budden also began crafting countless mixtapes and albums, most recently with underground supergroup Slaughterhouse. Through it all, Budden somehow snatched the mantle of hip-hop’s most hated man and has inspired an army of angry detractors that rivals his passionate fan base.
Like another of rap’s most disliked MCs, 50 Cent, Budden (nicknamed “Joe Frontin’” by his haters), sometimes starts shit to drive sales, and other times seems to do it just because he’s in the mood. Earlier this year, when Vibe compiled an NCAA-like bracket competition to pick hip-hop’s “Best Rapper Alive,” and participants had the nerve to seed Method Man higher than Budden, the rapper angrily insisted that he was the top dog. This dispute appeared to bubble over during an incident involving Meth’s Wu-Tang Clan crewmate Raekwon—at an August concert in California, one of Rae’s cronies allegedly punched Budden in the eye.
Budden’s not above squashing petty squables when there is a clear business benefit, though. Despite a long-standing rivalry with Saigon (which began a couple of years ago when he taunted the Brooklyn MC about an altercation with another rapper), earlier this year the men became labelmates. Following Budden’s signing with Amalgam Digital—a nontraditional label that specializes in digital media and doubles as a promotions company—Saigon jumped on board as well, and the two proceeded to play nice.
Adding to the drama that Budden surrounds himself with is the fact that he records all of his escapades with a handheld camera and posts them on the Web. Joebudden.com has documented everything from the rapper’s Wu-Tang troubles and fights with his video vixen girlfriend Tahiry to a phone call he had with Milwaukee Bucks draft pick Brandon Jennings, who, apparently unaware he was being taped, blasted the New York Knicks and one of their players.
Budden’s sales, though, haven’t kept pace with his publicity. Perhaps that’s because he puts out so much music. Amalgam released his Padded Room album earlier this year to decent sales, but the recently rereleased volumes of his Mood Muzik series—some of which date back to his Def Jam days—have had less of an impact. Going almost completely under the radar, meanwhile, was his most recent solo work, Escape Route, which he described as the prelude to yet another forthcoming disc called The Great Escape. Not long ago, Amalgam announced a partnership with indie label E1 (formerly Koch) to put out even more of Budden’s music, including Slaughterhouse’s self-titled debut, which was released in mid-August.
No underground hip-hop album has been as highly anticipated this year as Slaughterhouse, which also features Brooklyn’s Joell Ortiz, Long Beach’s Crooked I, and Detroit’s Royce da 5’9″. Though all three once had ties to Dr. Dre and Aftermath Records, like Budden they never received their major label due; as a result, each brings a sense of pissed-off righteousness to the project. “Your run’s over, run with us or get run over,” Budden raps. “I’m here to save this shit, and I brung soldiers.”
Focusing primarily on good old fashioned battle-rhyming, the work serves up heavy helpings of punch lines and lyrical dexterity, and much of the disc’s charm comes from outrageously fast delivery. Spits Ortiz on album highlight “Onslaught 2”: “I ain’t shabby with the nouns/I ain’t shitty with the verbs/When I reach heaven I want the nigga Biggie to be like ‘Word!’” Adds Crooked I on “Lyrical Murderers”: “See I’m a literary genius/Bury niggas with words, a cemetery linguist.”
In fact, each MC goes so hard each time out that it’s hard to take it all in. Recorded over an intense weeklong session early in the summer, the disc doesn’t have the cohesion of groups with history together, like, say, Wu-Tang Clan, and it often feels less like a collaboration than a track meet.
Still, the work’s throwback verbosity (and sheer velocity) has already made it something of a cult classic for hip-hop heads. Not everyone, though, is thrilled with Joe Budden’s contributions. One particularly disgruntled fan even went so far as to remove all of his verses and release a “No Joe Budden Edition” mix of the album. Others have hinted that it was he who was responsible for the album’s relatively poor first week sales of 18,000 copies.
It’s unfair to say Budden single-handedly ruins the project. The other group members have called him an elder statesman and unifying force, after all, and on Slaughterhouse’s intro he’s referred to as the group’s “pair of legs; he runs shit.” Still, some of his lines are less than memorable. “If it ain’t for me/Most young dudes would be angrily but anxiously awaiting bankruptcy,” he declares on “Sound Off,” one of a handful of rhymes that don’t really make a lot of sense.
Then again, an occasional Budden misstep or two shouldn’t be surprising, considering how thin he has spread himself in the past couple of years. Besides, just as often he hits his mark. On Mood Muzik 3: The Album, for example, he touchingly ruminates on difficulties in his relationships with his family and his troubles with Def Jam. “Wanted a deal, I got it and couldn’t deal with it,” he raps on “All Of Me.” Despite Budden’s bluster, one gets the feeling that there’s actually a calm, contemplative guy somewhere in there—which is probably why it’s so hard to stop paying attention to him.