In 2003, “Pump It Up”, the lead single from Joe Budden’s self-titled major label debut, had reached just inside the top 40 of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, though it seemed even more ubiquitous than that. He was enjoying the type of fame that came along with a hit single—soundtrack appearances, countdown show love back when that used to mean something, getting dissed by lower-tier rappers, etc.—and seemed to be someone we’d be hearing from well into the latter part of this decade (not unlike, say, Fabolous). By January 2006, if you wanted any indication of how Budden’s career was going, all you needed to do was to look at the name of the mixtape he had released a month earlier: Mood Muzik 2: Can It Get Any Worse?.
The source of Budden’s ire: label woes. Nothing new, especially as far as major-label rap goes, but Budden’s now five-year-long bench-warming is especially noteworthy because of his back-and-forth tussling with ex-Def Jam president Jay-Z (both Budden and Jay are no longer with the label). Their feud dates back to Budden’s “Pump It Up” days, when Jay famously jumped on that song’s remix and supposedly fired subliminal disses at Budden. Both sides have denied that Jay’s “Pump It Up” verse is the source of the ill will, but it hasn’t helped squelch the thought that Jay purposefully blackballed Budden while both were at Def Jam.
To his credit, Budden hasn’t receded from the limelight quietly. Since the release of Joe Budden, he’s kept himself relevant by constantly putting freestyles on the Internet, releasing mixtapes (the latter of which, the aforementioned Mood Muzik 2, was a regional and web hit), and even by becoming a short-lived member of the reputable blogging team on the website of XXL Magazine.
He was officially dropped from Def Jam this past October and was quickly picked up by Amalgam Digital, the label set to release Mood Muzik 3: The Album, Budden’s pseudo-new record that’s acting as the prelude to his now-mythical second album, Padded Room.
He doesn’t seem to be comforted by any of this, though: the opening couplet of MM3 is “The soundtrack to my life is like CNN first shit / Images like on CNN, but worst shit”. That first song, “Dear Diary”, lays the melodrama on thick, and the rest of the album follows suit. The album is choc-full of dimestore Dipset beats, all weeping strings and wailing, canned samples, presumably picked because Budden aimed for the beats to mirror his gut-wrenched lyrics. Fine enough idea, but if MM3 feels slightly silly to you, it’s not your fault.
For comparison, Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam rapper Freeway released his excellent second album this past November four years after his debut. His style is similar to Budden’s: both have gruff, urgent voices that sound inherently pained, but Free tempered his album with slick synth tracks that helped elevate his howling-soul songs to near epochal levels. (That doesn’t factor in respective recording budgets, but the intentions remain.)
Budden spends most of MM3 in LiveJournal mode, spilling his guts about the Def Jam drama, moving between fuck-the-world chest-beating (“This ain’t about radio / I’m beyond the dial) and gnawing self-doubt (“Is anybody feeling me still?”). The rest is saved for rote girl chasing and gun talk, and that’s where MM3 starts to lose its way. Even though only his true fans could really be compelled by a whole album of him whining about getting jerked around by the industry, it’s still endlessly more compelling than whatever else he has to say.
We see this evidenced best in the nearly eight-minute-long “All of Me”. The song distills the most interesting parts of MM3—the paranoia Budden can’t seem to brush off, how he sometimes frames his situation into a larger context, his often good punch lines—into one song, and matches it with an appropriately lonely-sounding beat, where a forlorn flute seems to harbor no sympathies.
The album’s dreary back half gets a kick in the ass on “Warfare”, where Budden trades bars with the snarling (and also recently dropped) Joell Ortiz, one of the game’s brightest young MCs. It’s a study in dichotomy: Budden’s gravely voice versus Ortiz’s nasally one, a rapper (Budden) who’s beaten by the game versus one who’s still optimistic that there’s something for him in rap.
What MM3 reveals about Budden’s real second album is anybody’s guess. MM3 sounds like a mixtape, its beats are barely there and most of its references already dated (if you aren’t already rolling your eyes at a Fiascogate punchline, imagine, say, five months from now). And on top of that it doesn’t show us anything we don’t already know, namely that Budden is pissed, but he can also still spit. Interested parties can hit YouTube (or Budden-backing mp3 blog Nah Right), Mood Muzik 3 is die-hards only.