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Fat Joe

The Darkside, Vol. 1

[Terror Squad / E1; 2010]

By ; August 5, 2010 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

This is a record I didn’t think I’d ever see made. For more years than I’m going to bother to count, Fat Joe has been a joke, “Lean Back” his only real claim to fame for the past however many albums. Perhaps it was due to Big Pun’s passing, perhaps it was due to a desire to pop out, who knows, but Joe has certainly not been a presence to take seriously, let alone The Elephant in the Room. Yet, while he may have been reduced to a Scary Movie 3 cameo to a generation of new listeners, time was when Fat Joe was just fine. Never amongst the very best of rap, but records such as Jealous One’s Envy were solid gangsta efforts. Then somewhere along the line he became a punch line, and not a very good one at that.

On Darkside, Joe seems suddenly revitalized. Can’t be sure what it was, but the rapper declared his intentions to return to his roots, and this disc is the result. As a catalyst my money may in fact be the passing of Guru. In his pre-release press runs, Joe’s been talking about the loss, and expressed his disgust towards the lack of respect the great has received in death. Perhaps he realized he needed to get it together to see that older MCs aren’t simply tossed out with the trash. The DJ Premier produced “I’m Gone” seems to support this theory. Aside from Premo, the production here is generally strong, Just Blaze, Cool & Dre also contributing, among others.

From the get go, Joe is chomping at the bit for renewed respect, not even waiting for the intro to pass before spitting viciously. In fact, the epic wail of “Intro” is damn effective at pulling in the listener (and is Joe still dissing 50? “We gonna throw the biggest party when Curtis die.”), dragging them down into the “Valley of Death.” This track, along with a good portion of the album, largely revolves around drugs and money, but one can’t blame him – if he’s returning to his roots, these are sure as hell them. This is more Mafioso than Fat Joe’s been in a decade, his own sort of Cuban Linx Part II. In fact, if there’s any album to compare this one too, as much as it may piss Joe off, it’s Before I Self Destruct: an MC whose material has digressed into beyond boring returns with a vicious attack of an album.

Next is “I Am Crack,” the Blaze track, and the producer is as good as he more or less always is. “Kilo,” featuring Clipse and Cam’ron, is an entertaining listen that’s not worth complaining about, but it’s re-use of the sample from Ghostface’s song of the same name makes it feel a tad bland. “Rappers Are in Danger” (not surprisingly) finds Joe swaggering against more or less whomever. It’s a pretty good track, but not great (and certainly not the KRS track it emulates), and that being said, I should make one thing clear: that’s how this record is. Like I said, Joe was never superb to begin with, and it’s simply nice to hear him returning to making good music, for this MC, great isn’t really necessary. The next two tracks are the album’s two singles, and both sport rather great production. The Scoop DeVille crafted “(Ha Ha) Slow Down” features Young Jeezy (who also sounds simply fine, but no more) serves as “the rapper’s cut,” while the Trey Songz featuring “If It Ain’t About Money” (one of the Cool & Dre joints) is the anthem track. On both, Joe displays his mixed delivery: clever quips, “Always on my hard shit, Joey Viagra,” mixed with duds, “This my Castle, but it ain’t white though.” Of the two, “Slow Down” is likely the stronger, personally, I find Songz to one of the more boring faces in current R&B, and his “Ballin like the Lakers, keep heat like Miami” line doesn’t help anything.

Scoop returns for “No Problems,” which is sadly brief, boasting an absurdly smooth groove. R. Kelly rolls around for “How Did We Get Here,” on which Joe reflects on how both he and rap itself have reached whatever its current residence is. I won’t help you mull over what “Money Over Bitches” is regarding, and it’s about as standard as it sounds. “Heavenly Father” oddly samples Lil Wayne, but it’s not a bad cut, allowing Joe an outlet to do one of those “loss and regrets” cuts. If there’s any criticism one can lob at Fat Joe on this record, it’s his continued sense of self-importance. Such as on the aforementioned track, lines like “[I have] to deal with all this envy,” sound empty after his last record debuted with under 9,000 copies sold. Yet, to be fair to Joe, can you name a rapper with a healthy sense of modesty?

Not that it matters. In the face of the glorious “I’m Gone” the rest of the album is simply small talk. While Joe may not be on the top tier of MCs, and certainly isn’t among the most talked about or remembered of his generation, one has to give him credit for tackling things no one else seems to want to anymore. Recorded the night of Guru’s death, Joe spitting, “Premo on the beat, yeah I know it sound different/ but his man’s just passed, yeah, soul’s just risen…Gangster, fuck that, I’m Gang Starr/ tell Nas hip hop’s dead now, my man’s gone,” is palpable. Then, Joe simply reminisces and reflects, and if you love hip hop, you can’t help but feel at least a little moved, no matter it having been “done before.” The record should have simply ended here, but instead the randomly aggressive “At Last Supremacy” hurls in, I suppose Joe felt he needed to really convince everyone he’s to be taken seriously again, a la Recovery’s “Untitled.” It doesn’t work here, when you’ve got an atom bomb like “I’m Gone” on your ends, it’s going to destroy whatever dares to come after it.

With The Darkside, Vol. 1, Fat Joe returns as a surprising force in the rap game. He may not be the most talented MC to grace the mic, but he deserves a whole lot of credit for attempting to return rap to an earlier time. He’s not the kind of guy who’s going to write brilliant songs, so not much of this record truly soars, but it manages to be one of the most simply enjoyable big name rap records released this year. Let me put it this way, with one album, Joe’s jumped from my list of jokes to a spot on my anticipated list for whenever Vol. 2 comes around.


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