Underground Revisited

By year’s end, the soft glow of nostalgia is going to smother us all. First, there was the months-long Illmatic campaign by Nas and his tax attorneys. By December, we will have trotted out the twenty-year parades for Ready to Die, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Resurrection, Warren G’s debut, Organized Konfusion’s Stress: The Extinction Agenda, Scarface’s The Diary, and maybe a handful of others. (Word…Life retrospective, anyone?)

Even if you halve the looking glass, a handful of beloved records see the decade mark come and go in 2014. The mid-2000s are not often held in high regard in rap circles—odds are at least ten of your Twitter followers bought Hip Hop Is Dead t-shirts—but 2004 was an exceptional year, giving us Madvillainy, The College Dropout, A Long Hot Summer, and a host of others. Naturally, a few gems are bound to go overlooked. Here’s a closer look at two: P.O.S’ ambitious debut, Ipecac Neat, and Joe Budden’s bitter lament from label hell, Mood Muzik 1: The Worst of Joe Budden.

P.O.S Ipecac Neat (Doomtree, 2004)

“Why’s it always gotta be bad news?”

Most of the press on Stefon Alexander paints him as an outsider. This isn’t without reason—even a cursory listen through his catalog has tics that pop out like vinyl static. But while his history as in punk is vital to understanding him as an artist, the othering obscures one very important point: P.O.S is an unimpeachable rapper’s rapper, and has been since the beginning. In Minneapolis-St. Paul’s City Pages (in a feature by Impression of Sound’s own Jack Spencer), Alexander laments that, on his debut, he “had way too many words in every song”. Ipecac Neat is indeed verbose; it’s also scattered and occasionally hard to follow. But this is a case where form follows function. On his last album, 2012’s We Don’t Even Live Here, P.O.S was a militant yet charismatic anti-establishment figure. Eight years prior, the point of view was the same in a broad sense, but wasn’t as carefully culled. The P.O.S of 2004 was all energy, unwilling to step back and pare down the message. And it makes for one of the most gripping listens in Minneapolis’ storied run in the aughts.

Ipecac Neat is a kinetic listen, uncompromising to a fault, held together only by that aforementioned rapping pedigree.

The grim stories of dipping and bobbing around the poverty line (“Music For Shoplifting”) are treated with the requisite seriousness, but Stef’s enthusiasm is never rationed, never tempered. “Kicking Knowledge in the Face” casts him as a thorn in the side of hip-hop ideologues at each end of the spectrum (“I’m not trying to save hip-hop/I’m trying to save my baby cousin from Jermaine Dupri”). Nearly every song rests precariously on the edge of total chaos, sometimes (“Kidney Thief”) before the first verse begins. Ipecac Neat is a kinetic listen, uncompromising to a fault, held together only by that aforementioned rapping pedigree. Even if the avatars—a matador chasing a bull in a china shop, say—don’t grab you, the component parts will. The coda tagged onto “Knowledge” is the kind of pyrotechnic show that reads the same to the purists and the scene kids, and that’s the point. Ipecac Neat is not P.O.S’ most accessible record, but it’s unfailingly fascinating.

Joe Budden Mood Muzik 1: The Worst of Joe Budden

There exists an alternate universe in which Joe Budden gets his fair share of the Def Jam promotional budget. (Also: Budden is not impossible to work with and Jay Z is not an egomaniac.) In this universe, Budden takes over the world, or at least a couple corners of it. Even as things are in this realm, “Pump It Up” was a smash at radio and on MTV, and “Fire” was immortalized in the greatest cinematic work of our time. But Jersey City’s finest and his self-titled debut album never got the attention he felt he deserved. Growing embittered, Budden retreated within himself, eschewing the club songs for the dark recesses of his own construction. His sophomore effort for Def Jam, The Growth, never saw the light of day.

When things were still in limbo, Budden took matters into his own hands. Mood Muzik 1: The Worst of Joe Budden is the phenomenal start to one of the best mixtape series of the 2000s. It’s a mixtape in the truest sense—original songs flow into freestyles over industry beats, guests are abundant, and album songs sneak in on the B-side. There is, however, one important twist: those album songs aren’t teasers for an upcoming label-sanctioned release. Rather, “Calm Down” and “Walk With Me” are the oppressively dark, personal gems pulled from the wreckage of his ill-fated 2003 debut. On the latter, he asks: “If you went to Def Jam would you notice/If they was out for my best interests or do they just see a dollar in Joseph?” In the context of his debut, it’s the fear of an insecure man unaccustomed to success; here, it’s a rhetorical question.

Mood Muzik 1 clocks in at over ninety minutes, but it plays considerably shorter. Budden alternates ruthless self-exploration with world-beating punchlines. Sometimes, he combines them both: “Pitch that black or that white, call it Wayne Brady/I’m insane, baby, with that X and that dust red/Fuck you niggas expect from an ex-dusthead?” “Whatever It Takes” stands as one of the most haunting self-examinations of the last decade; his take on Eminem’s “Sing For The Moment” briefly runs circles around the original. Budden would go on to craft leaner, more cohesive records in the next several years, but Mood Muzik 1 stands as the rawest, most relentless S.O.S. from the Def Jam shelves.

Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is a the lead writer at 2dopeboyz and a frequent contributor to Passion of the Weiss.

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