Joe Budden - Halfway House (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Joe Budden

Halfway House (2008)

Amalgam Digital

You ever have a great story that you just can't wait to tell your friends about?

Joe Budden is that story.

No matter how excited you are to tell everyone about your trip to Europe or your luck in finding $100 on top of a paper towel dispenser in the 7-11, your friends will invariably be less excited to hear about it. For me, no matter how many friends I try to push Budden on, and believe me, I've talked to death about him, the response is less than stellar.

I've come to accept that Jersey Joe may stay my involuntarily-kept secret. In fact, I've come to relish the fact.

Halfway House is the mixtape released to preface Budden's long-awaited sophomore album, Padded Room. Even though it's only a mixtape, like most of Budden's mixtapes, it feels like an album. The length, the production value, the flow, the quality -- all indicative of a man who puts everything he has into his music.

After a brief intro and the hard-edged "On My Grind," Budden launches into the intricate wordplay and stark introspection that have made his Mood Muzik mixtape series one of the most heralded of the decade. "Sidetracked" adds a hip-hop coating to Coldplay's "Lost," and Budden glides effortlessly over the track, baring his soul and his troubles for anyone who will sit down and listen.

Sometimes I wanna make money, sometimes I ain't motivated / Sometimes I think it's overrated, sometimes I'm thinking I wasn't supposed to make it / But what I show is basic, I normally poker face it / Sometimes I wanna make music, sometimes I think it's just useless / So you don't hear a lot of new shit, clueless dependin' on what my mood is / Sometimes I wanna dress down, I mean I wanna let up but ya'll be let down / […] / I can be so analytical, with no one to listen who am I a critic to?
As gifted as he is with his heart pinned to his sleeve, Budden's wit can turn an otherwise-common reference into a caustic punchline. "Slaughterhouse" is not only a showcase to Joe's clever pen, but to the pens of some of the best young rappers in hip-hop: Joell Ortiz, Nino Bless, Crooked I, and Royce Da 5'9" all bless the track with their unique brands, and seven minutes later, you'll be clamoring to find out what just hit you like a truck in the night.

Ortiz brings his Latin flavor and quick-hitting style in serving notice that he's firmly at the top of the game ("Never in a hundred years I knew I'd be a rapper, but in less than a hundred bars I knew I'd be a factor / I'm PS4 in HD and the screen is plasma, you Atari 2600 with a weak adapter / between us the gap so crazy, I'm Fendi and Louis V, you're Gap Old Navy") and Crooked I serves everyone notice that the West Coast is far from deceased ("I send your soul to the atmosphere, fuck outta here, end ya ringtone rap career / This is Crooked I, face of east side Long Beach, put your ear to the streets so you can hear my heart beat"). While the torrent of punchlines is mesmerizing, what Budden is about -- what he's always been about -- is being human.

That is, to say, that no other rapper is more comfortable with adversity, and no other rapper takes more pride in overcoming it. On the soul-heavy "Under the Sun," Budden looks back on a failed relationship and looks forward to the future ("Sometimes you've gotta stand by your failures to recognize your success / Still I‘ll be the bigger man and wish her all the best") and on the smooth Motown of "The Soul," he reminisces about a career that started as anything but a sure shot ("Remember gettin' hyped off my first Casio, souped up writin' my first verse it was ass though / A capella no beat and a bad flow, damn I miss the good old days...when we had soul").

What separates Joe Budden above all his peers, though, isn't his punchlines. It isn't his crystal-clear delivery. It isn't his ability to flow on any beat put in front of him and it isn't his ability to change rhyme schemes as effortlessly as you or I would a pair of pants. What puts him on that plateau is a storytelling ability not seen since the late great Notorious one or Nas in his hey. Not since Rakim and Kool G. Rap has an emcee been as gifted in lyrically painting a picture. There may be no better evidence of Budden's lyrical prowess in his catalog than what is displayed on "Just to Be Different."

Above a gorgeous piano-laden sample, the New Jersey native wastes no time exploring his day-to-day difficulties ("See I don't trust no one, so stubborn I could dream a thousand paths wake up and walk the old one") and career pressures from all possible angles:
They said I had to make music that would keep the kids fiendin', screamin', make nothin' with a meaning so I don't know the meaning / They told me go Hollywood, for a split second thought I probably could but piled it on would I be understood? / Told me even if you not able to cop cable, any time you hit the club you better have a table / Told me they would take me at my worst, told me image is everything, told ‘em I'd obey my thirst / Told me do what you gotta once you on, hit the scene make it rain, I told ‘em I'm already in the storm / Told me everything's in an uproar, told me to front I told ‘em what for? Said it again I said fuck ya'll / I won't succumb to all the stereotypes, won't sacrifice me for what the stereo likes / They told me ‘get in when you fit in, this what's in demand now' / I told ‘em ‘why try and fit in when you're a standout?
That never-quit attitude has been Budden's trademark for years, and it makes him somewhat of an anomaly in 2008. There's no niche for that kind of approach. He's too intelligent for the gangsta-rap tag and too gangsta for the backrap-rap title. He's an East Coast rapper with Tupac's West Coast introspection. He's a Jersey City rapper with Biggies Brooklyn storytelling.

So where, in this tangled web of hip-hop, does he truly reside? Or did he put it best himself?
Why try to fit and fit in when you're a standout?