I’m not quite sure when it happened, but sometime in the last few years everyone seemed to agree that, despite a resume that makes him a hip-hop Hall of Fame contender, Fat Joe’s career was over. Lyrically, Joseph Cartagena is one of New York’s original gangster rappers, a man who rhymed alongside “greatest ever”s like Bigge and Big Pun, and has been commercially outstandingly, dropping the second highest selling rap song of the last decade, Lean Back, and crafting multiple top-ten rap albums. And yet, as the calendar turned to 2010, hip-hop nation had mysteriously …
DJBooth Album Review
Actually, I know exactly how - an ill-advised beef with 50 Cent. Fiddy launched a media blitzkrieg in 2005 aimed at convincing us that Joe was a joke, and, like he always seems to do, 50 bent reality to his will. (Only Rick Ross has ever survived a career assault from 50.) Whether Joe’s last two albums – Elephant in the Room and J.O.S.E. 2 – sold poorly because of 50’s propaganda or on their own merits, either way the people saw Joey Crack’s anemic sales and, despite two full decades in the game, buried him alive.
Don’t call it a comeback. While Fat Joe will likely never again reach the stratospheric heights he enjoyed in 2004, by largely stripping his new album, The Darkside Vol. 1, of any pop-leanings and bringing his sound back to the streets, Joe should at least win back some of the respect he deserves.
While the haters will assuredly find plenty of material to fuel their fire throughout The Darkside, those of us not pre-disposed to anti Fat-itude will find at least a few gems amongst the rough, starting with the brilliant Valley of Death. It’d be easy to heap most of the praise for Valley’s undeniable dopeness at the feet of Cool & Dre, who notably put their usually more banging sound to craft a slowly soulful groove, and certainly the duo deserve their due, but it’s Joe who breathes true life into the track, flipping between starkly dark autobiographical tales and violent swagger with ease. Even better is the DJ Premier produced I’m Gone, a cut that harkens back the now classic hip-hop sound of early ‘90s hip-hop; a sound that few could lay claim to know except Primo and Joe. I could do without the three minute monologue at the end (looks like someone’s been taking notes from Diddy), but otherwise I’m Gone is nothing but quality. From Valley of Death to the remorseful How Did We Get Here, incredibly featuring a completely serious hook from R. Kelly, if you’re looking for stellar production backed by solid rhymes from a hip-hop hall of famer, The Darkside’s got you covered.
Any album that wants to be truly considered successful in 2010 has to succeed on two levels: it has to be good enough to earn the respect of hip-hop heads, and it has to have at least a couple smash singles. As I already laid out, Joe’s got the former down, but will likely struggle with the latter. While his lead single (Ha Ha) Slow Down’s become the ship that launched a thousand freestyles, on the actual charts it’s been a moderate hit at best, and frankly I don’t hear anything on Darkside that will do much better. The most obvious candidate is the smoothly pouncing If It Ain’t About Money, a track that suffers from an identity crisis: Joe tries to make it A Milli on the verses, while Trey Songz goes for a smoothed out vibe on the chorus. You can’t have both. Kilo, which brings on Clipse and Cam’ron, will undoubtedly draw unflattering comparisons to Ghostface’s track of the same name (and same sample), and even the Lil Wayne feature, Heavenly Father, is spent deeply examining the thin line between forgiveness and regret. We’re a long way from Make It Rain, and Lean Back for that matter. A long, long way.
Instead of viewing that lack of a radio single as a failure, it should be viewed as a success. Joe’s been rightfully criticized for moving towards the pop side of the spectrum, and so he intended Darkside to be a return to his roots. He succeeded. Lyrically conceptual yet street hard cuts like I Am Crack won’t earn Fat Joe legions of hyperventilating teenage girl fans, but it should earn him more respect. It’s about time.
DJBooth Rating - 3.5 Spins
Written by Nathan S. on 07/26/10
R4 So Valid, LLC/Terror Squad
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