Joe Budden’s “No Love Lost” – Success or Flop for Underground Hip-Hop?

For almost a decade, Joe Budden has epitomized underground hip-hop. His fan base adores him, his competition fears him and radio stations largely ignore him. Never one to shy away from controversy, he’s fought with everyone from Game to Jay-Z to Wu-Tang. He’s publicized every one of his numerous high-profile relationships, most of which have ended with malice. He’s certainly one of the most open artists to grace hip-hop, making his listeners acutely aware of his struggles with drug addiction and mental illness.

All this considered, Budden commands near-unanimous respect on the mic. With an impeccable flow, complex lyricism and raw emotion, he has quietly established himself as one of the best emcees alive. The Jersey rapper’s critically acclaimed “Mood Muzik” mixtape series, solo albums and placement in the rap supergroup Slaughterhouse have earned him recognition from hardcore hip-hop heads. However, this has translated into virtually no mainstream success for Budden (the lone exception being his 2003 hit single, “Pump It Up”).

Having already secured his place in the underground, “No Love Lost” represents Budden’s ambitions for mainstream acknowledgement. This is apparent upon first glance over his feature list (Lil Wayne, Wiz Khalifa, Lloyd Banks, Juicy J, etc.). Whenever an established underground artist makes a project designed to garner radio play, fans tend to get nervous. Successful transitions do occasionally happen, but the Kendrick Lamar’s of the world are few and far between.

Unfortunately, “No Love Lost” has its fair share of misguided Top 40 attempts and it’s easy to get nervous after listening to the first few tracks. Cursed by dumbed-down lyrics and poppy production, “NBA” (feat. Wiz Khalifa & French Montana) sounds like a cornier version of Khalifa’s “Work Hard, Play Hard.” Things don’t get much better with “She Don’t Put It Down” (feat. Lil Wayne & Tank), which shamelessly mimics DJ Khaled’s “I’m On One.” Even though Budden has historically demonstrated an ability to make club songs, this track was a miserable failure and Budden fails to recreate the pizazz of “Pump It Up.” The atrocious verses from “The Most Overrated Rapper Alive” don’t help much, either.

Thankfully, Budden gets most of this out of the way by track five. What follows is a much-needed reminder as to why Budden is held in such high regard by hip-hop connoisseurs across the spectrum. The “Mood Muzik” series was so impressive because Budden was able be so open and honest about his demons while simultaneously maintaining impeccable flow and lyricism that makes the listener want to rewind the track to catch that last metaphor. He comes off as real, not whiny. This is what we get to experience with standout tracks like “Castles,” a no-holds-barred account of drug abuse, depression and soured relationships. Budden holds consistent over the next two tracks “All In My Head” (feat. Royce Da 5’9″) and “Skeletons” (feat. Joell Ortiz & Crooked I), which feature outstanding contributions from his Slaughterhouse brothers. The four use the intricate lyricism we’ve come to expect from Slaughterhouse to tell harrowing tales of crime, alcoholism, poverty and suicide that would never make it to radio airwaves. As expected, these are some of the best tracks on the album, since they allow Budden to do what he does best: be real.

The rest of the album walks a fine line between mediocre and adequate. Budden’s attempt at swag rap on “Last Day” (feat. Juicy J & Lloyd Banks) is nothing short of corny and the lagging R&B influences on “Tell Him Something” are enough to put even Drake to sleep. Thankfully, he ends the album on a solid note with “My Time” and then “No Love Lost,” which remind the listener that despite these new mainstream ambitions, this is still the same honest, lyrical, messed-up, respectable Joey.

I don’t think this album could be considered in any way a success to either mainstream listeners or traditional fans, given the amount of times where he just missed – and badly, at that. That being said, it’s still a Joe Budden album and with that comes a certain level of lyricism and skill which has to be acknowledged.