King of Hearts
Label: Definitive Jux
Few artists in the early-2000s indie-rap renaissance carried the talent of Columbus, Ohio’s Camu Tao. Originally a member of the Fondle ‘Em Records collective MHz (Megahurtz), Tao’s probably most known for his work on Definitive Jux, both as one-half of SA Smash (with rapper Metro) as well as becoming something of the label’s Nate Dogg, a frequent collaborator and go-to guy for a catchy-hook. As a solo artist, despite releasing the highly-lauded “Hold the Floor” single off the Def Jux Presents 2 compilation and putting out three ‘Blair Business’ conceptual mixtapes, he was never able to complete and release a full album before his untimely death of a rare form of lung cancer (the same one that killed Andy Kaufman) in May 2008. As a tribute to their fallen friend, Definitive Jux founder El-P and others all pitched in to realize Camu Tao’s vision, assembling what would have been his solo debut, King of Hearts and believe me when I tell you, it’s a card worth playing.
There’s been much speculated about King of Hearts since the announcement of its release last year. From the early leaks that primarily featured Camu singing, to friends who’ve heard previews stating it “wasn’t a hip-hop album,” those of us who’ve been following the project since its announcement really didn’t know what to expect. Allow me to quell those fears now by definitively stating that yes, this is a Hip-Hop album. There is a lot of vocal experimentation and instruments one wouldn’t be used to appearing on most rap records, but Camu’s approach is steadily rooted in boom-bap enough to make even the more rock-influenced moments not seem terribly out of place on your ‘urban music’ playlist. That’s not to say that there isn’t more traditional rap moments on the record. Those not ready to take their seat in King of Heart’s new kingdom will still have “Ind of the Worl” and “Major Team” to fill those needs. Otherwise, the bulk of the album features harmonies, melodies and innovation that not only largely-predates Gnarls Barkey and their ilk, but surpasses it.
While praise of the highest order should be given to Camu and the posthumous album’s producers for its perpetual peaks and powerful performers, the few flaws flare-up as the moments that don’t feel particularly Kingly. It’s an unfortunate task to have to go through a departed friend’s remaining work and decipher what-would-work-best-where and the most painful part of the listening experience is wondering what could have been, but it would be unfair to chastise an admittedly and irrevocably unfinished record for what it isn’t than what it is. Like dinosaur bones in a museum, there are large chunks missing for verses and bridges that will never be recorded, but El-P and company opted to let these moments remain somewhat empty as what exists of Camu’s performance is undeniably strong. What can be said of the record’s flaws are the moments that aren’t so much unfinished as plainly out-of-place. The aforementioned “Ind of the Worl” is an indictment of the Bush Administration and while he was still in office at the time of Camu’s death, the song itself stands particularly dated in the collection that seems so utterly timeless. While similar moments would have been more forgivable in a “this is all we got” presentation, as an album they remain the few songs I wouldn’t put on repeat for an hour and relegate what would have arguably been a 12-track classic album into an excellent 16-track one.
It’s a tremendous testament to one man’s talent and friendships that King of Hearts is able to exist. From the infectiously catchy Elvis Costello-esqe “Be a Big Girl” and “Death” to the sing-along thump of “Plot a Little” and “When You’re Going Down” it’s a bittersweet goodbye to an always cutting edge career and a more than proper swan song for a label that carried the virtues that Camu personified. It’s hard to specify exactly who to recommend it to as there’s so many different elements and influences at play, but Hearts has enough heart to warrant attention from any interested audience. Longtime fans know it’s a safe bet, but for first-time listeners who never got a chance to appreciate the man during his life, Camu Tao’s King of Hearts makes for a worthy shuffle into any listener’s deck.