There is no evidence to suggest that Joe Budden can bend spoons with his mind. But in the hip-hop mix-tape underground, the New Jersey-bred rapper’s rubbery voice, acerbic sense of humor (reminiscent of Garden State neighbor Redman), and slurred yet engaging delivery have earned him a rep as “The One.” And when Budden held his own in a playful war of words versus Jay-Z this past spring–serving Hova with hoop-dream zingers like “Stand out like Yao Ming / I’m what’s sparking now / Like, ‘Fall back, Shaq, I’m startin’ now'”–people started to believe. Like Philadelphia’s Freeway or Atlanta’s Killer Mike, Budden seemed poised to give the rap game a much-needed transfusion of youth, energy, and soul.
Of course, it’s easier to spit slang over no-contest instrumentals like “Grindin'” and “In Da Club” than to craft an album that lives up to the mix-tape hype. But Budden’s self-titled debut doesn’t disappoint. The beat on the hit single “Pump It Up” should win producer Just Blaze a Nobel Prize, but the song is ultimately less a floor filler than it is a showcase for Budden’s tumbling flow. On the rest of the record, Budden applies the same gift of gab to material that’s surprisingly confessional and often downright dark. On “10 Mins.,” Budden (whose past includes PCP abuse and stints in institutions) looks back on his troubled youth for–yup–ten minutes.
This tension between bragging and insecurity, between the night out and the morning after, gives Joe Budden a singular spark. If the album falters, it’s when Budden guns for crossover appeal; cameos by Lil’ Mo and 112 reek of boardroom tampering. But even a bit of lab-tested R&B can’t ruin this bold debut.