Joseph Cartagena is one of those guys who has carved out a niche in hip hop without ever really appealing to me. I guess you could say that about a lot of rappers, but Fat Joe especially mystifies me: the man started out as one of the more "gangsta" members of the critically-acclaimed Diggin' In The Crates crew (alongside the likes of Showbiz, A.G., Lord Finesse, Buckwild, and the late Big L, among others) and has somehow ended up as the last man standing in his Terror Squad, a group in which the only other current employees are production duo Cool & Dre. He has burned through friendships left and right, severing partnerships with the drop of a hat and starting fights that he knows he could never win without ever looking back. And his earlier albums talked up a violent past and a vengeful present, while his later output aimed squarely for a mainstream audience obsessed with commercial Trackmasters-esque beats and guest appearances by Lil' Wayne, Ja Rule, and Ashanti.
But perhaps his worst offense of all is his piggybacking on the passing of his friend, Christopher "Big Punisher" Rios, as Fat Joe continues to evoke his name whenever he feels it to be appropriate, as if he's the Latino Puff Daddy to Pun's Notorious B.I.G. Big Pun remains the only viable component in Large Joseph's long career (and the best artist that he has ever signed), but that hasn't stopped the artist also known as Joey Crack from continuing to believe that his own career hasn't yet reached its zenith.
It's not that I have no interest in Large Joseph whatsoever: I recognize that the man has clearly worked his ass off to still be around in our fickle chosen genre, and I still kind of like Terror Squad's "Lean Back" (but not for Joey's performance, admittedly). It's that I don't fully believe in Fat Joe. I don't understand his journey: how exactly does a guy come from an established hip hop pedigree and end up flopping around on the side of the river to the beat of a 1980's sample? Fat Joe has been recording for the radio audience for at least a decade at this point, and yet nobody feels this to be a negative trait. Oh well; I guess there's no shame in wanting as many people as possible to hear your work.
Except that Fat Joe himself is obviously embarrassed of this turn of events, as his most recent album, The Darkside Vol. 1, was conceived to only include "dark" tracks, in a calculated effort to win back his hardcore audience (you know, the one that moved on several years ago). With this project, Large Joseph decided that he wanted his street credibility back, and he set about to take it by force.
Sorry, but that's really all I can come up with for this intro. The Darkside Vol. 1 is Fat Joe's tenth solo album, which is about seven more than I care to listen to and about ten more than he truly deserved to have. But somehow, the motherfucker manages to sell records: even though this project found him signing to E1 Entertainment after getting dropped from a major label, he still managed to move a good number of units, confirming that this will almost certainly be the first of a fucking trilogy.
In the vein of my series on LL Cool J, today begins my experimental reverse chronological look into Large Joseph's body of work, in which I hope to pinpoint exactly where everything fell apart. I also hope to discover just why the man still has fans to this day, as nobody I know will even admit to have listened to his shit in the past.
Large Joseph uses his rap album intro allocation to invite “bitch ass n----z” to The Darkside Vol. 1, launching into a one-verse missive soon afterward. His voice already sounds insincere, as most rappers who have actually touched a small amount of success and now have no business taking about the lure of the streets tend to: this is probably why I stopped paying much attention to the guy's career in the first place. His use of this Scram Jones beat is even questionable: it sounds like a violent headgame as filtered through a Clear Channel radio station, so it's painfully obvious that Joseph is still attempting to serve his mainstream masters with this album. His quick jab at Curtis Jackson at the end of his verse also sounded desperate and unfunny. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother with this genre.
2. VALLEY OF DEATH
If Kanye West's career had hit a brick wall and he was forced to craft beats just to pay the rent on that oversized luxury ego of his, it's entirely possible that he might have crafted a shitty soul-sampling instrumental quite similar to what overrated production duo Cool & Dre have done for “Valley Of Death”. Joey Crack undermines his own violent threats (all of which aren't very memorable or even the least bit scary) with a chorus that includes the chanting of the phrase, “Get money!”, which renders this entire fucking song pointless. Whoever keeps supporting Fat Joe and allows him to continue releasing music really needs to stop, as they are doing Joseph no favors.
3. I AM CRACK
Joseph attempts to drive down a creative lane with this song, an extended metaphor linking our host with crack-cocaine, and truth be told, it's obvious that he actually put some fucking effort into the track. It isn't great, but it's a start. Just Blaze's instrumental doesn't fit well with the overall theme, but the sound bites from journalists actually help develop the mood, even of Joey's bars aren't always interesting enough to earn the attention of the audience. Definitely could have been a lot worse, though.
4. KILO (FEAT. CLIPSE & CAM'RON)
Let's get the obvious criticism out of the way: Large Joseph and producer DJ Infamous flat-out ripped off Ghostface Killah's Raekwon-assisted, MoSS-produced song of the same name, using the same Schoolhouse Rock sample to describe bricks of cocaine in metric system terms. Also adding to the confusion is the fact that Malice (of the Clipse) even guest-starred on the official remix to Ghost's song (from the reprehensible Def Jam cash-in Ghost Deini The Great). Thankfully, Malice doesn't recycle his vocals (he's stuck sharing a verse with his brother Pusha T, which is a depressing waste of natural resources), and DJ Infamous doesn't craft a carbon-copy of Pretty Toney's work. However, this track lacks heart: the empty cocaine rhymes from the Clipse, Large Joseph, and the artist formerly known as Killa Cam sound so paint-by-numbers that any random combination of four rappers could probably have delivered these lines in a similar fashion. I'm going to go listen to Ghost's song really quick, just to wash this shit out of my brain. I'll be right back.
5. RAPPERS ARE IN DANGER
After “Kilo”, I was afraid that this song would be the scene of a crime: the armed hijacking of KRS-One's “Rappaz R N Dainja”. But I was wrong: the two tracks only share a vocal sample. DJ Infamous, who seems to be cornering the market on creating rap songs that recall other, better tracks, crafts a beat which sounds inappropriately bombastic: this song is supposed to be a warning shot, not the victory lap. Large Joseph isn't up to the task, either: his generic verses prove that he is actually one of the problematic rappers in the industry that is in danger, as opposed to someone why is eagerly picking them off. Similar to the way I ended the “Kilo” review, I think I'll listen to The Blastmaster's song in an attempt to forget that this track ever happened.
6. (HA HA) SLOW DOWN (FEAT. YOUNG JEEZY)
Scoop DeVille's musical backing sounds fucking annoying as shit at the very beginning, but once the old-school drums kick in, the song becomes surprisingly entertaining, even if this is just Large Joseph's version of Jay-Z's Grammy award-winning “On To The Next One”, mixed with an LL Cool J sensibility. Joey isn't even the weakest link on here: that honor is bestowed upon his guest, Young Jeezy, who sounds so far out of his comfort zone that I pictured his eyes bursting out of their sockets while he suffocated, Total Recall-style. This track wasn't that bad, although a listener shouldn't have to sit through five full songs before they get to hear an entertaining diversion.
7. IF IT AIN'T ABOUT MONEY (FEAT. TREY SONGZ)
One thing I've noticed about Fat Joe's work on The Darkside Vol. 1 is that he no longer has a unique identity behind the mic: Joey seems content to ape whoever is hot at the moment, which is really fucking pathetic for someone who is (was?) a member of the Diggin' In The Crates crew. “If It Ain't About Money” is a mixture between a Lil' Wayne-type staccato beat (thanks to Cool and Dre's lack of creative inspiration) and a crappy Trey Songz effort, going so far as to actually include the overrated Trey Songz on the chorus. Large Joseph has become quite the chameleon in his old age, but if nobody is actually looking for you anymore, do you really exist in the first place?
8. NO PROBLEMS (FEAT. RICO LOVE)
Scoop DeVille's instrumental sounds like something Snoop Dogg would rhyme over today (which makes sense, as the two men have worked together in the past), but Joey Crack proves to be a good fit regardless, as he sounds like he's truly excited by the prospect of rapping for a living. The low-key Public Enemy samples set an undeniably sinister tone, and Joey manages to help the audience remember why he once mattered in our chosen genre. The R&B hook, provided by Rico Love, is a bit out of place, but he doesn't sound completely terrible, so this track works more often than not.
9. HOW DID WE GET HERE (FEAT. R. KELLY)
Rappers are either a very forgiving bunch, of else they have skeletons in their respective closets that they don't want exposed: this is the only way I can rationalize why artists continue to work with a guy who pisses on underage girls to get off (R. Kelly) or a guy who beat up (and bit) his pop star girlfriend (Chris Brown, who, in all fairness, isn't featured on The Darkside, Vol. 1: maybe Joey suddenly has standards?). Robert pitches in on Large Joseph's version of The Notorious B.I.G.'s “Juicy” had it been performed by a man at the end of his career instead of at the very beginning, and it sounds just as mainstream as a track featuring R. Kelly normally does. It isn't an awful song, but hip hop already has its “Juicy”, and Joey commits some severe blasphemy to Biggie on here that is hard to just gloss over.
10. MONEY OVER BITCHES (FEAT. TOO $HORT & TA)
Here's the deal: when I listened to my local library's CD copy of The Darkside Vol. 1, this song was listed as track number ten, but it isn't actually featured on the disc itself, due to some sort of error in mastering. (The physical CD skips from “How Did We Get Here” straight to “Heavenly Father”.) However, this song is featured on the iTunes version of the project, and is relatively easy to find online, so I had to hunt this fucker down in order to give a complete review, which is annoying as shit. (Since this album didn't sell very well, I don't see E1 chomping at the bit to apologize to both Joey and his fans.) Sue me, but I actually liked the cheesy 1980s vibe that Raw Uncut's beat brought to the table, although it really doesn't fit the dark vibe of the album as a whole. (So maybe it was left off on purpose? No, that doesn't make sense; then why would Joey list it on the back cover? But it doesn't fit on the album! Cue Max's head exploding...now.) Large Joseph and TA even sound alright enough: I didn't want to shut the song off immediately, anyway. The song falls apart when rap veteran Too $hort takes to the mic: he refuses to flow with the beat, choosing instead to rhyme using the same delivery he's driven into the ground for the past fifty years, and this time around, the fast-paced instrumental isn't as forgiving, as it makes him sound like a senile pimp. It is what it is.
11. HEAVENLY FATHER (FEAT. LIL' WAYNE)
Ah, there it is: I was waiting for Joey to invoke the name of Big Pun. (He might have done it elsewhere on the album for all I know, but his rhymes, for the most part, are boring as shit, so I might have simply glossed over it.) Interestingly enough, Joey Crack snags Lil' Weezy for a cameo, but only allows him to rap on the hook, which is either extremely foolish of the fucking smartest move ever, depending on what side of the fence you happen to live on. The Streetrunner beat plods along, and the high-pitched singing on the hook grates at the ears, but I actually don't question Joey's sincerity on this track. Weird.
12. I'M GONE
Joey Crack uses a DJ Premier instrumental for a one-verse wonder-slash-rap album outro, and it's nothing if not intriguing. Joseph appears to feel that hip hop died when Primo's Gang Starr counterpart Guru passed away, and he pays homage to him on here, which is all well and good until he claims to be Gang Starr, which made me itch uncontrollably. He uses the back half of the beat to run through a quick autobiography, even justifying why he went the mainstream route in the first place, and, perhaps most importantly, he acknowledges the D.I.T.C. crew (but fails to single out the late Big L for a posthumous shout-out). Primo's beat sounded alright at first, but it runs for longer than six minutes, so you're bound to grow as tired of it as I did. Still, not a completely terrible way to end an album.
The following is listed as a bonus track.
13. AT LAST SUPREMACY (FEAT. BUSTA RHYMES)
The intro (and chorus) to this song features a Busta Rhymes performance that sounds so much like Sticky Fingaz from Onyx that I wouldn't be surprised if he was paying some sort of backwards tribute to him. Cool and Dre's beat fails to claim supremacy over the rap game, but Joey Crack sounds decent, even a bit clever during his second verse, where he incorporates all of his album titles into a flimsy narrative as if he were a crappy GZA/Genius knockoff. But I have to say, this really wasn't awful.
THE LAST WORD: For the most part, Fat Joe's The Darkside Vol. 1 sucks. You knew that going in to this write-up, so if you're still reading right now, I appreciate it. What is a bit shocking is that Large Joseph isn't completely out of ideas: a handful of the songs on here were decent enough to warrant a second volume in this alleged series. Lyrically, the man wound up his career years ago, and he is prone to resorting to violent catchphrases and signing up multiple guest stars in an effort to distract any potential listener from his faults, but there are a couple of moments on The Darkside Vol. 1 that (a) aren't very dark, relatively speaking, and (b) remind you exactly why Fat Joe is still a part of our chosen genre. The DJ Premier-produced “I'm Gone” is probably the gem of this piece, and while it really isn't that great of a track, Large Joseph is a bit more honest with himself (and, by extension, the audience) on it. You two shouldn't look at The Darkside Vol. 1 for any discernible reason, but maybe you should listen to “I'm Gone” at least the once, just to hear what Fat Joe's career could have been, had he not made a blatant cash grab so early on.