Music

Camu Tao: King of Hearts

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.


Camu Tao

King of Hearts

Label: Fat Possum
US Release Date: 2010-08-17
UK Release Date: 2010-08-30
Website
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

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.

6
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

Ivy Mix's 'Spirits of Latin America' Evokes the Ancestors

A common thread unites Ivy Mix's engaging Spirits of Latin America; "the chaotic intermixture between indigenous and European traditions" is still an inextricable facet of life for everyone who inhabits the "New World".

Film

Contemporary Urbanity and Blackness in 'New Jack City'

Hood films are a jarring eviction notice for traditional Civil Rights rhetoric and, possibly, leadership -- in other words, "What has the Civil Rights movement done for me lately?"

Books

'How to Handle a Crowd' Goes to the Moderators

Anika Gupta's How to Handle a Crowd casts a long-overdue spotlight on the work that goes into making online communities enjoyable and rewarding.

Music

Regis' New LP Reaffirms His Gift for Grinding Industrial Terror

Regis' music often feels so distorted, so twisted out of shape, even the most human moments feel modular. Voices become indistinguishable from machines on Hidden in This Is the Light That You Miss.

Reviews

DMA's Go for BritElectroPop on 'The Glow'

Aussie Britpoppers the DMA's enlist Stuart Price to try their hand at electropop on The Glow. It's not their best look.

Film

On Infinity in Miranda July's 'Me and You and Everyone We Know'

In a strange kind of way, Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know is about two competing notions of "forever" in relation to love.

Music

Considering the Legacy of Deerhoof with Greg Saunier

Working in different cities, recording parts as MP3s, and stitching them together, Deerhoof once again show total disregard for the very concept of genre with their latest, Future Teenage Cave Artists.

Music

Joshua Ray Walker Is 'Glad You Made It'

Texas' Joshua Ray Walker creates songs on Glad You Made It that could have been on a rural roadhouse jukebox back in the 1950s. Their quotidian concerns sound as true now as they would have back then.

Music

100 gecs Remix Debut with Help From Fall Out Boy, Charli XCX and More

100 gecs' follow up their debut with a "remix album" stuffed with features, remixes, covers, and a couple of new recordings. But don't worry, it's just as blissfully difficult as their debut.

Television

What 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Taught Me About Unlearning Toxic Masculinity

When I first came out as trans, I desperately wanted acceptance and validation into the "male gender", and espoused negative beliefs toward my femininity. Avatar: The Last Airbender helped me transcend that.

Interviews

Nu Deco Ensemble and Kishi Bashi Remake "I Am the Antichrist to You" (premiere + interview)

Nu Deco Ensemble and Kishi Bashi team up for a gorgeous live performance of "I Am the Antichrist to You", which has been given an orchestral renovation.

Playlists

Rock 'n' Roll with Chinese Characteristics: Nirvana Behind the Great Wall

Like pretty much everywhere else in the pop music universe, China's developing rock scene changed after Nirvana. It's just that China's rockers didn't get the memo in 1991, nor would've known what to do with it, then.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.