When he recorded King of Hearts, Camu Tao knew he was dying of lung cancer. His solo debut feels urgent and incomplete. It’s a collection of electro-rap songs with barely any rap verses. The songs are brief meditations on death and love and arguments, but as dark as this music can sound, it’s never bleak. Camu had a sense of humor and excellent taste in slamming computer beats. All of this makes King of Hearts a maddening listen: death seemed to light Tao’s creative fire, only to snuff it out in 2008.
You can hear all that unfulfilled promise in the second song, “Bird Flu”. After opening with a simple beat, reminiscent of Toni Basil’s “Mickey”, the song explodes into its chorus. Camu’s distorted voice sings out, “ExCUUUUSE me, I don’t mean to disturb you / But I am the bird flu, I am!” Around him swirl a panoply of synthesizer and electric guitar sounds. It’s a great, unique hook; after all, how many songs are narrated by a disease? (A very polite disease, at that.) You can’t wait to hear how Camu will flesh out this idea. And then… nothing. The spare opening beat continues for the length of a verse (you can freestyle your own), then we hear another refrain, the beat, refrain, the beat with louder synths. It’s a promising sketch, but all those empty bars make the song feel far longer than its three and a half minutes.
That’s an extreme example, but other songs have similar problems. “Fonny Valentine”, which interpolates the Rodgers and Hart standard, boasts a second verse that’s the same as the first; the outro on “Ind of the Worl” takes up half its running time. You can’t blame El-P, Tao’s friend and label boss, for releasing this album, because it demonstrates some of the tricks Camu had up his sleeve. Unfortunately, those tricks aren’t enough to keep things interesting, and the album feels exhausted well before it’s over.
That said, Camu Tao (pronounced “ca-MOO TAY-oh”) was one of the trickier characters on the Definitive Jux label. He had a flair for high concept albums like Nighthawks, based on the Sly Stallone thriller (and the first of Rutger Hauer’s “bird of prey” movies!). He contributed one of the listenable verses on El-P’s Fantastic Damage album. If a typical Def Jux release conjures images of dystopian industrial parks and airplane hangers, King of Hearts sounds like it was recorded in Prince’s playroom, or whatever creepy grotto he inhabited on the sleeves of Dirty Mind and 1999.
Throughout King of Hearts, Camu’s vocals slam as hard as his beats. When he shouts out “Let me simplify this!” on the late-album highlight “When You’re Going Down”, it’s a manifesto. His flow is all simple exuberance. Camu’s repeated cadence syncopates furiously, playing off a muffled bassline that sounds like it’s wafting up from the basement. His singing is just as confident—pitch perfect, with some cheeky vibrato on his long notes. Often Camu sounds like he’d rather be a rock star; when he quotes Elvis Costello’s “Big Boy”, it’s like he’s being strangled by a skinny tie. He also doubletracks himself singing in octaves a lot, like Prince, which adds to the album’s claustrophobic atmosphere. “Listen,” the production values say, “ONE GUY is making all this music. That doesn’t leave much time to interact with other human beings.”
Despite its lonely sound, King of Hearts isn’t an esoteric album. It’s the sound of Camu reaching out, trying to connect with people while grappling with the most personal elements of his life. “Death” imagines the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” as an electroclash date with the Grim Reapress. (“She said we could be together / But we’d be more than just friends”.) The song’s texture is so sparse that every element—vocal, beat, morbid wit—is front and center. With any justice, Tao’s many admirers will reuse those elements in even better music; Kid Cudi, for one, could really do a lot with these beats. King of Hearts shows that Camu Tao knew exactly what he was doing; it also shows that dying is a real pain in the ass. It’s our loss that he wasn’t able to do more.