[8 March 2009]
Like many rappers who get into the game at a young age, Joe Budden was screwed over again and again by labels that caused his sophomore full-length to be on the receiving end of delay after delay. Hell, before its name became the aptly titled Padded Room, Budden’s followup was originally called The Growth. But after being pushed back numerous times by Def Jam, the album was ultimately canceled. In between then and now, he treated us to a slew of successful and solid mixtapes, including the Mood Muzik series. The emcee then signed with Amalgam Digital, on which he has finally released the lopsided Padded Room, which falls victim to a problem heard on albums from the likes of Nas and Canibus. Like those rappers, Budden can spit fiery rhymes and also tell one hell of a story. But his talents seem to fizzle there, as many of the beats on here fail to hold your interest and flirt with lessening the impact of his lyrics.
Unsurprisingly, Budden immediately brings the heat on the album opener, “Now I Lay”, one of several tracks produced by Blastah Beatz. With several references to his huge 2003 party anthem “Pump It Up”, the emcee casts aside his former less-serious, perhaps immature leanings to display a man who is clearly focused and grown up. And though he will tell you he’s not bitter or frustrated, which he did in a recent YouTube video response to a critic, could you blame him if he was? It appears, though, that it’s less aggravation and more of a realistic, somewhat cynical view of the music industry and life in general. And he exudes that demeanor across most of the album, but in a way that’s different and not as stereotypical as what you hear from many underground rappers.
Though that’s not to say Budden is an underground rapper, far from it, but he does maintain the kind of hunger and tenacity of most unsigned artists. Case in point, here’s a sample from the stellar “Don’t Make Me”, which has Budden spitting over a rock sample laced by Blastah Beatz, yet again: “Wouldn’t be smart to tangle wit ya guardian angel / Not when they got a strangle from every angle, head to ankles / Get mangled, so I don’t got shit / My eyes everywhere, on my Stuart Scott shit / Tryin’ to be fly every second that the clock tick”. What you have is humor, shit-talking, flossing, and self-awareness in a matter of several bars. Lines like those are what make Budden so rewind-worthy and, in a way, an addictive artist. He hits similar highs lyrically in his conversation with a deep-voiced deity on “Pray For Me”. The rapper spends most of the tracks justifying his wrongs, which range from abandoning children to pushing drugs, as God finishes with this insight: “Hope you heed my words and understand / So when I see you back, you should be a better man / Look at life different, the next time we see each other / There’ll be no need to talk, whenever we meet each other”. Although this concept has been done before, Budden pulls it off flawlessly. The other two tracks on here that battle for the storytelling throne are the pace-slowing “Exxxes” and “I Couldn’t Help It”. They make for a one-two punch of somewhat devastating, personal rhymes slightly bogged down by above-average Klasixs’ beats. Budden keeps it interesting, though, intertwining troubled relationships, with both females and friends, during the two songs. And he also takes a chance on the mic by slightly switching up his flow, as he sounds reminiscent of 2pac on “Exxxes” with the stretched-out punches.
Even when Budden’s not flexing his lyrics muscles to the fullest, his attention-demanding flow and voice are enough to keep you intrigued. On “Adrenaline”, the finest example of that point, he spits alongside Drew Hudson over rock riffs and drums from the Junkyard Gang. Though some might find it cheesy and slightly hailing back to the cringe-worthy nu-metal days, it’s actually anything but that. “Adrenaline” raises just what its title implies and will likely solidify itself on your workout playlist. Others in this vein, though not as in-your-face, are “Do Tell” and “In My Sleep”, the latter depicting all of his deepest, darkest nightmares.
If you have not noticed by now, then let’s make it clear through simple repetition: the beats on here, though there are exceptions, do nothing to add to Budden’s work in the booth. Even the strongest productions aren’t nearly as fantastic as they should be. But the New Jersey rapper usually picks up the slack and holds your focus. On certain joints, though, you cannot help but find yourself reaching for the “next” button. “Blood On the Wall” sounds like a throwaway beat from Heltah Skeltah’s disappointing D.I.R.T. and “If I Gotta Go” is just plain awkwardly paced. The primary cause of these problems is the lack of a cohesive feel as the tracks play on. With a handful of producers handling the beats, there was little chance for that anyway, but one can hope. While certain cuts do maintain a specific vibe, mostly in part to many of the producers utilizing synths, their overall effort is simply not good enough. That remains true for his grasp at a club single, too, on “The Future”. With an overzealous synth beat from Fyu-chur and the Game also in the booth, Budden seems to have a solid recipe cooked up for a hit. But it’s ultimately barely above average and not likely to get many booties shaking.
Yet, even with all those negatives, Padded Room is still a solid, well-crafted effort. Budden has not slouched at all in his six years “out” of the game, though that’s clearly not accurate as his mixtapes have more than filled any possible void. But there is still plenty for him to accomplish if he wants to have a classic under his belt. And if his shit-talking and online presence is any indication, he will likely not settle until he has a classic album of his very own.