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Since hip-hop’s inception as an underground phenomenon that empowered displaced inner-city teens to express themselves, fame has been a fickle mistress for the lion’s share of the genre’s artists. Even the most knowledgeable aficionado may be forever indebted to DJ Kool Herc’s experimental turntablism at Sedgwick Avenue but will always avidly seek out the latest hotly-tipped artist courting the media’s attention. The elusiveness of staying power in hip-hop is a well-documented phenomenon in not only the cautionary tales of innumerable artists that had once seemed to hold the gold-plated keys to the kingdom in their palm, but within the realm of rappers that are aware of the inherent dangers of buying into your own hype and promptly ‘falling off.’ As someone whose endless quest for sonic exploration and acumen for spotting talent has enabled him to sidestep this common pitfall time and time again, the rapid rate at which the sun can set on a blossoming career is encapsulated by Dr. Dre’s feature on To Pimp A Butterfly’s “Wesley’s Theory” when the wizened elder statesmen proclaims that “anybody can get it, the hard part is keeping it motherf******.”

Nestled amongst Kendrick Lamar’s insightful rhymes about the corruptive forces of money and swathes of attention, this forewarning from the West Coast pioneer rings true now more than ever when artists can quickly be relegated to the side-lines in the wake of a deluge of buzz. To corroborate this ongoing trend, you would only need to look at an XXL Freshman cover from the past few years to see a clear dichotomy between those that were able to capitalise on the exposure and others that were washed away amid the constant stream of new music that greets our ears every day.

By the time that hip-hop had blossomed from a subculture and source of puritanical moral panic in the ’90s to a cultural powerhouse that rivalled rock and pop music, this tumultuous path to career-eroding obscurity had been established and endured by countless promising acts in the early 2000’s. Much of the Def Jam Recordings roster, once regarded as the undisputed tastemakers of East Coast hip-hop and a prominent breeding ground for many of these faltering would-be stars, ended up crushed by the weight of expectation.

Def Jam artist Keith Murray in 2003
Getty Images / Evan Agostini

In spite of having their likeness forever emblazoned on the brains of impressionable youths the world over due to inclusion in their beat-em-up game series, all the vaunted prosperity of MC’s such as Keith Murray, COMP, Capone, Shawna and other would soon dissipate, leaving them to languish on the outer-reaches of hip-hop history.

As was proven on countless occasions, one fleeting moment of mainstream prevalence in the mode of COMP’s showing on the Cradle To The Grave soundtrack or Shawna’s entrancing appearance on Ludacris’ “Stand Up” was not enough to construct a career from. For these prospects that Russell Simmons’ label had hedged their bets on, the ability to weather the storm of pervasive notoriety was no mean feat and these one-hit-wonders were rarely able to shift their public perception once the lustre of their moment in the spotlight tapers off. For this reason, among others, the one-time Def Jam alumni turned polarising media figure and commentator Joe Budden has proven to be an anomaly among his peers.

When the New Jersey-based MC first landed on the world’s collective radar, to say that he seemed earmarked for success would be an understatement. Catapulted into prominence by his breakout track “Focus” and its inclusion on DJ Envy’s The Desert Storm Mixtape: Blok Party Vol. 1, soon ‘Joey Jump Off’ was being courted by the majors and would be signed to the illustrious Def Jam In 2002. Still in his early twenties, Budden was hastily saddled with shouldering the titan’s reputation on his shoulders and remarked that they saw him as the ‘future’ and wished for him to “carry on the Def Jam tradition for the next 10 years.”

After all of the conjecture and endless promotion, the MC’s eponymous full-length would arrive in 2003 to predominantly favourable reviews. Split between Just Blaze-helmed floor fillers and contemplative fare that saw Budden exorcise the demons and insecurities of a troubled life on wax, what couldn’t have been predicted during its conception was just how much one direction would overshadow the more forthright and poetic offerings that resided on the record.

At once the most financially prosperous moment in his career and an albatross around his neck, the exuberant “Pump It Up” has continually came back to haunt Budden when in the heat of an adversarial interaction with another MC. The track managed to truly propel the Jersey City MC beyond the pantheon of hip-hop and towards the Billboard charts. The Grammy-nominated crown jewel in his arsenal as far as a casual observer would be concerned, this poisoned chalice of a hit single would eventually mar his formerly nurturing relationship with Def Jam and result in both the permanent shelving of his sophomore LP The Growth and his eventual departure from the label in 2007.

Ever since then, Budden’s career has been typified by tales of triumph over adversity with his successful independent turn and revered Mood Muzik mixtape series. He managed to keep up momentum on his own accord alongside setbacks and heartbreak all the way up until his eventual retirement with his stunning parting shot – 2016’s Rage And The Machine.

All in all, Budden’s tenure in rap left behind an indelible legacy that will ensure that he’ll eternally find himself on lists of slept on MC’s that never received the acclaim their skills warranted. However, his journey is perhaps a blueprint for how to buck the trend of fading from the limelight in order to arise with renewed salience.

For all the misgivings he may harbour about how the major label machine chewed him up and relinquished him onto uncertain terrain, what even the most vehement detractor of ‘Jump Off’ must acknowledge is that his love for the genre has never diminished. A devotee of the artform that he credits for his personal salvation, one of the main reasons that Budden is often perceived as a combative and belligerent ‘’old head’ by today’s consumers is due to the onus of responsibility he feels towards hip-hop’s continued prosperity.

Although it may seem like a throwaway jibe on social media, Joe’s Twitter retort to what he views as his chosen occupation is provides a real insight into his motivations. Brought into the public domain when Dan Bull enquired ‘what is your job?,’ the then-Complex employee was unrepentant in declaring himself a ‘culture-forwarder.’ At the time he composed this curt remark, Joe was plying his trade at the aforementioned publication as a host on roundtable show Everyday Struggle alongside his millennially-minded antithesis DJ Akademiks and mediator Nadeska Alexis. Due to the contrasting opinions of its talking heads and their penchant for broaching topics in a refreshingly undiluted fashion, the initial run of Budden and his various co-conspirators’ brainchild was a hit and soon became a regular news item in itself.

By aligning with a high-profile platform, Budden had now repositioned himself as a media personality in the same vein as New York’s N.O.R.E has become with CBS Radio’s Drinks Champs or the socially conscious MURS has with The Breakdown on Hip-Hop DX. However, where Joe differs from these figures is in his ardent commitment to upsetting the applecart and doing what he feels is best ‘for the culture’ even when it may throw his own life into disarray.

Following months of discontent and unrest within the ranks, Budden cut ties with Complex, the outlet that he once thought would help to ‘pull the layers back’ in a meaningful way. Instead of licking his wounds or resting on his laurels, Joe adhered to his code of authenticity by explaining that the Verizon and Hearst owned media company’s desire to implement corporatism into the show was what led to his disillusionment with what he’d once helped to build. Explained at length on the December 20 edition of his eponymous podcast, Joe lifted the lid on how Complex had requested that he wear Nike apparel to tie in with a deal they’d struck and to discuss tracks on Spotify’s ‘RapCaviar’ playlist under the guise of being ‘candid’, the latter of which he point-blank declined to do. As a result of the insertion of vested interests into the show’s formula, Everyday Struggle no longer fell under the remit of forwarding culture that Joe had highlighted just months earlier and, by his own definition, would have to be abandoned.

Now independent once more just as he’d been upon severing the links between himself and Def Jam, Budden was undeterred and would take what he’d learned from his association with Complex and strive once again to produce content that he sees as beneficial to hip-hop as a whole. In the months that have followed, that is exactly what he’s enacted by continuing to diversify his portfolio and add feathers to his cap as a commentator and authority on all things pertaining to the genre. Freed from the confines of a corporate structure, the Slaughterhouse alumni has set an example to the legions of rappers that perhaps find themselves at a crossroads in the wake of dwindling wealth or fame by starting anew and prospering all the more for doing so. Once his gainful employment with Complex was over, Joe’s zeal to create was reignited as he began to allot more energy to his own endeavours. His weekly podcast is now the home of those incendiary tangents and heartfelt speeches that he’d previously delivered for the benefit of another company’s YouTube numbers. Flanked by co-hosts Rory, Mal, and seldom-seen producer Parks, the show has garnered such a fanbase that it has led to tours across the U.S. its own merch, and hundreds of thousands of hits with each episode.

Away from the podcast, his commitment to delivering compelling conversation on important topics in hip-hop can be seen in his new series Pull Up. Released on a semi-regular basis via his YouTube channel, each edition consists of frank and honest discourse between Budden and a litany of engaging and thoughtful figures ranging from Vince Staples to Styles P, Maino, Michael Rappaport, and a particularly revelatory chat with T-Pain.

As if that wouldn’t be enough to keep the husband and father busy, Budden’s recent prolific streak and astute shift in career direction has led to his services being acquired by none other than Diddy and his Revolt TV venture on State Of The Culture. Viewed by Budden and Diddy as a means to “elevate the culture,” this lucrative new deal is a testament to what rappers-turned industry figures can achieve by refusing to compromise on their principles or personally devised code of conduct. By hooking up with Diddy’s platform, Joe has cemented the foundations for MCs to viably make a living from discussing the music that they know so well in the same vein that sporting figures take up punditry and commentating roles once their heyday in their chosen field has elapsed.

Although his role in hip-hop may have evolved and deviated from the recording booth, one spectre in Joey Jump-Off’s life that has stalked him through this transition is his innate ability to attract the derision of his fellow lyricists. Over the course of his time as a recording artist, Joe Budden was a heat-seeking missile for beef and controversy; so much so that there are entire articles dedicated to chronological rundowns of his many auditory altercations with rappers from factions such as Wu-Tang Clan and G-Unit to assorted also-rans including Saigon, Ransom, and many more.

Now that he’s made the leap from artist to media personality, Joe Budden has been a living embodiment of ‘old habits die hard’ as his scrapes with rappers continue to come thick and fast. Much in the same way that lyrical warfare can be beneficial to an artist’s career and become a pivotal part of their legacy, the regular stream of detraction from chart-topping figures gives Budden’s newly devised career a distinct allure of its own. During his time on staff at Everyday Struggle, his routinely hot temper and unfettered approach to airing grievances made headlines when they welcomed Lil Yachty to the show. The first in a series of high-profile clashes from the show, their disputes over 360 deals, the validity of Capitol as a force for good in hip-hop and what Joe perceived as Boat’s naivety would usher in an era of animosity in his career that would bring his name into the vernacular of a new generation that had likely never even heard “‘Pump It Up.”

A mere month or so after the heated dispute, Budden would once again gain the ire of chart-topping figures when he and Migos narrowly avoided getting physical at the 2017 BET Awards. Alongside Hot 97’s Ebro, Budden now has the distinction of being one of the few media commentators that is regularly attacked by artists and this was never more overt than on Quality Control, Lil Yachty and Quavo’s “Ice Tray.” Accompanied by a video which parodied Everyday Struggle and built around a chorus of “If a n**** hating call him Joe Budden (pussy),” coupled with Yachty’s decision to wear a ‘F*** Joe Budden’ hoodie, a spat with Chance the Rapper over his new track and a diss from the similarly divisive Russ, would propel Budden to mainstream heights he hadn’t seen since he was aiming shots at Drake. By the time that Eminem was perceivably throwing bars his way for disloyalty on “Chloraseptic” and his Slaughterhouse stablemates waded in to the fracas, Joe had harnessed all of this negative energy and channelled it into building his brand and in this instance, displayed an exemplary approach to using controversy to your advantage.

If there was another common thread throughout Budden’s time in the spotlight aside from the disgruntlement of his fellow MCs, it would be his reputation for painstaking honesty and willingness to let his feelings bubble to the surface. Even at a time where braggadocio and bravado remained an overvalued commodity in hip-hop, Budden was willing to expose his internal battles to the world. Ever since he began to bear his many foibles throughout the course of the Mood Muzik saga and notably on the deeply introspective All Love Lost, Joe Budden has never relented from sharing the details of his struggles to overcome issues with mental health. In this sense, he has been a trailblazer by never looking to uphold the façade of unwavering self-assurance that has long been a staple within the deeply competitive realm of hip-hop.

In the days where Budden so frequently found himself embroiled in a battle of wits with another MC, he’d be forgiven for cloaking anything that could potentially be repurposed as a weakness, and yet there he was standing on the George Washington Bridge, elucidating on his familial woes, drug abuse, and the war he was waging against his melancholic thoughts. Beyond the thinly veiled bars about his label’s apathy towards his inner strife, Joe has been more than willing to expand upon his depression and urges to attempt suicide that he’s faced over the years. Perhaps most poignantly of all, a discussion on Everyday Struggle about Styles P’s daughter taking her own life would lead an unburdened, post-rap career Joe Budden to disregard any remaining shred of apprehension about espousing his message of mental health advocacy to openly weep for those that don’t manage to overcome suicidal thoughts in time.

Following on from his confessional remarks, Budden’s history of rapping about this pertinent subject predates newer artists such as Logic, Anderson Paak, Joyner Lucas, Lil Uzi Vert, and even Kanye. His penchant for address mental health issues was uncovered by those who’d offhandedly discredited his work and garnered him widespread plaudits, setting a precedent for the destigmatisation of an illness that has claimed the lives of so many in the unforgiving world of hip-hop.

Brash and confrontational but never inauthentic, Joe Budden will never attain universal appeal and would probably never wish for it, if it meant that he had to present a falsified version of himself to the public. No matter how many times the turbulent and unflinchingly cruel rap game has tried to expel him from its ranks, Budden’s irrepressible devotion to the genre has meant that he’s always strived to use his creativity in order to produce something timeless. By virtue of his resilience and willingness to parlay his divisive personality to produce compelling content and music in equal measure, a man that once had his credentials called into question by an endless procession of rival MC’s and stints on reality TV has arisen to become an unlikely redemptive tale. Whether or not every one of his media ventures is a success, what Budden has proved is that there’s a life beyond the days where your bars are no longer as sought-after by the masses and all it takes to get there is work ethic, an understanding of your worth, and that exact same love of the artform that inspired you to pick up the pen to begin with.

For more like this, read our op-ed asking if everyone is really welcome at Travis Scott’s ‘Astroworld’ right here.

  • Text: Robert Blair
Words by Contributor
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