Posthumous albums never seem to pan out. Reason being, is that they are usually made up of songs leftover from the artist’s catalog that either the artist or the label did not feel were strong enough to see release. While we all dream of raiding the vaults of unreleased music from our favorite artists (and sometime the bloggers do it anyway), most of what we find are unfinished tracks or low quality demos, besides the occasional diamond in the rough. When we speak of our fallen rap heroes, we remember Capital Punishment, not Yeeeah Baby; we remember Ready To Die, not Born Again; we remember every Gang Starr album, not whatever leftovers Solar is pitching.
The case of Camu Tao is tragic, as he pretty much had a deal with Definitive Jux from the moment the label launched. The standard set by the label was very high, as guys like Cage, RJD2, and of course founder El-P were all successfully pushing the envelope by creating cross-genre hip-hop music that was good. The label’s mantra seemed to be to always think outside the box, and in most cases, they succeeded in pushing the boundaries of what to expect, while at the same time keeping it independent as fuck. Camu came from the same family as RJD2 and Copywrite – the MHz crew – and despite shake-ups and break-ups, they all found themselves working together in some capacity over the years. While Cam recorded three albums with other artists (S.A. Smash, Nighthawks, and Central Services), he was never able to branch out as a solo artist. After lung-cancer took his life too soon, El-P makes good on his promise to Cam and releases his solo LP, King of Hearts.
King of Hearts is admirable, especially considering that El honored his friend in releasing this album. Camu was no Biggie Smalls, where millions of fans would be begging to hear that final LP, and there’s a chance this album won’t make a dime in today’s fucked up musical climate. And for the record, any dime it does make goes directly to the estate of Camu Tao. It’s very clear why El-P decided to release Cam’s final recordings.
Unfortunately, like every cursed posthumous release before it, King of Hearts suffers from some of the same fates. The one major difference here is that it’s clear that El did not attempt to Afeni Shakur the tracks with Bruce Hornsby samples or guest verses from rappers that never met him. This is the pure uncut shit, as Camu recorded it. The main issue however is that much of it is unfinished, tracks like “Bird Flu” and “Actin’ A Ass” are nothing more than hooks, while many others have a poor, basement like quality that Definitive Jux moved way beyond in it’s later years.
The other issue here is Cam’s apparent identity crisis. We’ve witnessed many of the other Def Jux artists experiment with rock sounds, with positive results, for the most part. Cam attempted to tap into the NYC indie music scene in a series of demo recordings that may have best been left under wraps. There is one crown jewel here, and it’s right up front, Camu’s reworking of Elvis Costello’s “Big Boys” on “Be A Big Girl”. It’s the most fully realized and finished recording, and may have even been a breakthrough hit if released in the heat of the scene some years ago. Many of the other tracks follow this same vein, such as “Get At You” and “King Of Hearts”, find Cam using his Ozzy-esque vocal style to stretch his lyrics into mind-bending styles, but don’t pan out quite as well. There are a few hip-hop tracks mixed in as well (“Major Team”, “When You’re Going Down”), but seem a little strange in a mostly rock influenced album.
It’s clear from the production style that Cam was attempting to catch the ears of Hot Hot Heat and Hot Chip listeners with King of Hearts, and less concerned with the Def Jux fans that loved The Cold Vein. Props are definitely due to Cam for attempting to push the envelope, but on the same token, it’s tragic that his final words to the fans had to come like this, as we will never know if this is the way he wanted it. While his legacy is only been half-realized here, it still lives on in many of his greater, scattered works that preceded King of Hearts.
(No rating given out of respect for Camu, his family, and friends.)
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