One of the problems with trying to be clever and writing about an active artist's back catalog in reverse chronological order, thereby tracking their progress (or regression) throughout their career, comes when the artist in question continues releasing new material. I sort-of have that problem with LL Cool J, and I most certainly am seeing that with Joe “Fat Joe” Cartagena, whose discography I've barely touched since I threw him onto my list, mostly because the man won't stop working. I suppose it isn't really a “problem” to Large Joseph: at least he derives some sort of financial reciprocation for all of the work he puts in? One can only hope.
Largey hasn't released a proper album in four fucking years, but his name keeps popping up on everyone else's hip hop websites because he will apparently work alongside anyone who will have him, and he's also kept his career afloat by dropping mixtapes (all while promising actual albums that have yet to materialize, and let's be honest, probably won't). The subject of today's post, The Darkside III, is the second free mixtape sequel in a series that began as a proper album: following the laws of diminishing returns, The Darkside IV will probably be released as a telegram, while The Darkside IX will culminate in several consecutive smoke signals intended to signify random boasts 'n bullshit, and also someone will randomly shout out “Terror Squad!”, a phrase for which there will be no meaning, it having been lost through the passage of time.
The Darkside was named as such because Joey longed to dive into what he considered to be “darker” subject matter, which was just a goofy way of indicating that he didn't want to create as many radio singles. When freed from those shackles, Fat Joe's musical output ended up sounding pretty much the same, except less catchy, and, in turn, less popular: pretty much nobody gives a shit about The Darkside, to tell the truth. So for that to be the catalyst for a new chapter in his long rap career was confusing at best, but it has forced our host to double down his efforts in trying to win the street audience back, the folks who didn't really care for collaborations with the likes of Ja Rule and Ashanti.
The Darkside III veers away from its predecessor, which was largely produced by one dude, and tries to sound more like a coherent album, keeping the guest list at a bare minimum while allocating funds to pay off producers who could potentially draw in folks like myself who long ago wrote off Fat Joe as a rapper way past his prime. I'll get into the specifics of that in a minute here, but let it be known that at least one of the producers has now left me believing that our host could potentially keep this rap shit going if he's willing to take it as seriously as he does on here.
1. DARKSIDE III (FEAT. DRE)
As one may have surmised by simply reading that song title, “Darkside III” is essentially a rap album intro, albeit one that pretends to be something else. Over a boring Streetrunner concoction, Large Joseph unloads two verses full of braggadocio, threats, and grotesque sexual imagery (the holy trinity of rap hallmarks) while guest star Dre (of production team Cool & Dre) Auto-Tunes a hook that makes very little sense. If Joey were somehow hoping that this shit was going to make his fans want to tear their way through this freebie, well, he severely underestimated the taste profile of his fans.
2. MADISON SQUARES
Credit where credit is due: the Cool & Dre instrumental (co-manhandled by Young Sap) doesn't sound like anything else I've ever heard from them before. It's like the score of a Frank Capra movie planking atop a drum machine. But that doesn't mean that our host uses the beat to his advantage. Instead, he turns in a generic “started from the bottom” verse, shouting out the late James Gandolfini, which only draws attention to just how recently it had to have been recorded. That is, unless our host is a witch. You can't make everything sound more dramatic than it truly is just by choosing the proper musical backing, though: there needs to be context and depth and actual feelings involved. Joey at least used to be better at providing those elements back in the day.
3. MGM GRAND
Large Joseph uses his two verses on “MGM Grand” proving that he is familiar with then-current musical trends: 2 Chainz, Kanye West's “New Slaves”, and Justin Timberlake's “Suit & Tie” all get name-dropped as though Fat Joe was the lamest hipster of all time. But not only is this song pretty dull (Streetrunner's instrumental is fairly paint-by numbers), it also makes the MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas sound less than appealing, all because our host brags about dropping by every once in a while, eating their food, losing at their games, and dancing the night away at a club (I assume, only because the image of Large Joseph trying to comprehend EDM makes me chuckle). Which couldn't have been the intention. Tell you what, MGM: Comp a room for my wife and I and I'll consider deleting that sentence from the review. Real talk.
On a track that doesn't even run for a full two minutes, Largey somehow manages to squeeze in two verses and a break (because there isn't much of a hook), which is either an exercise in efficiency or one verse too many. Or somehow both? Illa's beat isn't bad, although it apes the faux-soulful feel that has been driven into the goddamn ground over the past decade, but Joey's bars, which never describe what could be considered to be true pain, completely lost me. It's becoming very clear to me why he felt the need to give these particular songs away.
5. YOUR HONOR (FEAT. ACTION BRONSON)
Finally, something good. Let's be honest here: “Your Honor” is obviously going to be the best track on The Darkside III, thanks to an interesting DJ Premier beat (although he's only credited as Premier on the album cover art, for some reason) and a guest-starring turn from Action Bronson, who flows so well over Primo's boom bap that it's downright silly that he has never had an opportunity to do it before now, so let's stop bullshitting, okay? There will be no debate here: this song is the only reason any hip hop head will even give a damn about a new mixtape from Fat fucking Joe. Our host spits his typical boasts and shit, but there's an undercurrent of anxiety related to the prison sentence he had not yet started when this song was recorded. Bronson and Joey sound pretty similar, which was a comparison I never expected to make, but this still banged regardless. Also, that scratched-in vocal sample from Joey's cameo on LL Cool J's “I Shot Ya (Remix)” at the end was quite prophetic.
6. 9TH WONDER
Should producer 9th Wonder, whose career can't be going the way everyone thought it would, what with his Little Brother beginnings and his work on Jay-Z's The Black Album, be honored by the title of this track, or annoyed that our host couldn't even be bothered to come up with anything remotely clever? I opt for the latter, since this song sounds incomplete, with plenty of empty space set aside for a chorus that was never actually recorded. Fat Joe talks about absolutely nothing on here, but at least he isn't in club-friendly mode: having spent so much time there during the past few years, it's nice to hear that he's trying to give a shit about his work. Succeeding is a whole other animal though.
7. CYPHER (FEAT. NICK SHADES)
Wait, what? Fat Joe actually acknowledges the Diggin' In The Crates crew (of which he is still technically, and inexplicably, a member) by getting a beat from motherfucking Diamond D? This marriage just got interesting. Now lyrically, this isn't the best song ever written: Largey and guest star Nick Shades spit disconnected boasts in an attempt to make “Cypher” sound like a spontaneous freestyle. But it is clear that they both had some fun recording this, and their excitement translates into an enjoyable exercise underscored by a Diamond D loop that is simple, but effective. Also, having our host shout-out the producer was pretty nice of him. About fucking time he returned to that particular well.
8. GRIMY IN THE EARLY 90'S
Has fuck-all to do with what the title implies. In fact, Joey devotes a good chunk of his second verse to “bitches” and the “plastic surgeons that create bitches”. Illa's beat was alright, better than his work on “Pain”, but there's very little to chew on here.
9. BASS (FEAT. NICK SHADES)
Cool & Dre's beat is a bit annoying, what with the consistent sound bite worked into the instrumental that gives the track its title (although it really does sound more like “Hey!” than it does “bass”), but, surprise, I actually thought this track was alright. The hook is ass, but Largey and Nick Shades essentially pick up where “Cypher” left off, except with a bit more in the way of song structure (again, I remind you of the ass-like hook). Not Fat Joe's finest hour, but at least this was entertaining enough.
10. ANGELS SING 2
The Darkside III ends with a sequel to a track that appeared on the preceding entry in the series, which Joey originally used to announce this particular project in the first place. Although Young Hype's beat sounded alright, Fat Joe undermines his own (lack of a) message during the second verse, delivered in an entirely different flow that just sounds motherfucking stupid. At least it ends.
SHOULD YOU TRACK IT DOWN? Don't get me wrong: The Darkside III isn't very good, even for it being a free mixtape. But there are two flashes of brilliance on here: his work with DJ Premier (and, by proxy, Action Bronson, an inspired choice), and his reunion with Diamond D. That second one was probably the result of Large Joseph cleaning out one of his closets and finding a box full of older discs that housed the beat: I'd be very surprised to learn that he actually commissioned his D.I.T.C. cohort for a quickie mixtape. But the fact that the collaboration exists at all is promising, and it created something that I would have written off as impossible as late as a few months ago: it actually made me interested in Fat Joe again, albeit briefly. But if that could happen, then it's possible that he could record an entire album (or, more likely, a podcast, or maybe a fanzine) that wins back the older hip hop heads who refuse to not write the phrase “Da Gangsta” alongside his rap moniker. Stranger things have happened. So while this mixtape was meh at best, “Your Honor” is worth adding to your Primo playlist. Listen to the rest at your own risk.
Catch up with Large Joseph by clicking here.