Joe Budden’s career, for the most part, has been that of a fish flopping along the coastline, water just beyond reach and death right around the corner. This metaphor applies to much of his music as well, having long been banished to the land of budget beats and cult fandom. Despite all the bitterness and moral quandaries that are pervasive in Joe’s music, or perhaps because of it, No Love Lost is an appeal to hitting the refresh button. Budden’s star has been on the rise since the 2009 formation of underground supergroup Slaughterhouse; he’s used streaming video, Twitter and other forms of social media to become a celebrity in that format, even becoming a star of VH1’s Love and Hip-Hop reality series.
That last bullet point is the most important one, as No Love Lost is clearly an appeal to the sorts of listeners who tune in weekly to watch Consequence clown on Joe Budden and his women. Unfortunately, that paints No Love Lost into an awkward corner Budden just doesn’t have the power to pull it out of. Long configured as a manic depressive’s ideal lyricist, Budden eschews every semblance of branding he’d curated with Amalgam Digital in favor of one of hip-hop’s most unfortunate subcategories: the album you can’t identify as a product of the name on the spine.
“N.B.A. (Never Broke Again)”, for example, is a Vinylz and Boi-1da production that sandwiches Joe in between verses by Wiz Khalifa and French Montana. By teaming up with more charismatic rappers on a track that’s right out of their wheelhouse, Budden guarantees anyone who loves that song likely won’t be doing so because his name is on it. Likewise, teaming up with Kirko Bangz” on “Top of the World” means his pursuit of Drake’s sound can only sound desperate at best considering Bangz’ own reputation.
One could certainly take the position that this is a fresh look for Budden and by working with artists like Kirko, Lil Wayne, Juicy J, and Wiz Khalifa he’s broadening his audience beyond his core and New York. I’ll readily agree that purely on merit Budden’s never had such fortune on the production end. Cardiak’s mellow piano track with an actual, straight up bass guitar bassline (such a rarity in most post-modern hip-hop) on “You and I” is really sublime and suits Budden’s adventure toward saying “I love you” grandly.
Unfortunately, there’s just something about Budden that doesn’t click with this Young Money, Maybach Music style production. His voice is gruff and tailor made for gritty, personal failures, of which he provides plenty here. But rapping over lusher production more often than not leaves me ascribing songs to his guests and paying more attention to them than what he’s saying. When he’s not sounding sort of like the Game, I’m reminded of when I’d hear mash-ups of King Geedorah’s (MF DOOM’s 2005 alias-du-jour) a cappellas over beats like T-Pain’s “I Can’t Believe It”. At best it’s a novelty, at worst sadly dissonant.
For years now, the underground’s been begging Joe to get on the phone and rebuild bridges, take after Royce da 5’9” and get some worthwhile beats for his worthwhile bars. But now that he finally has and the results are as tepid as ever, what’s the prognosis for Joe Budden? I don’t think he could satisfy any but the most fanatic of his fans if he continued down this direction; personally, I’d like to see him take a closer look at what Skyzoo is doing, because he’s a similar rapper who solved similar problems much, much better on A Dream Deferred. No Love Lost has its highlights (“Skeletons”, “You and I”, Juicy J adlibs) and is far from terrible. It’s just typical Budden atop typical Top 40 (other than “Ghetto Burbs”, which could’ve been a Lil’ Cease epic in 1999) and that’s not a formula that makes for anything memorable.