The first thing you need to know about Joe Budden is that there are multiple versions of him, and they’re constantly doing battle. There is a persistent stream of roiling emotions just below his surface. He’ll be laughing maniacally one minute, shrugging off a serious social issue the next, and ready to fight to the death over semantics a few seconds later (he’ll go so far as to demand someone produce and consult a dictionary). He’s passionate and messy, but he’s also incredibly self-aware. He readily acknowledges his flaws, sometimes right in the moment as he’s indulging them shamelessly. The result is chaotic absurdity. You can’t look away from it once it hooks you.
And I’m hooked.
“Nu- nu- nu- new Joe Budden.”
That’s the drop he uses to intro his podcast. It’s a child’s voice, and it’s fitting. Nostalgia is a big part of what drives Budden’s appeal. He usually opens the show with a throwback song, often from the nineties, and asks, “Were you outside when this was out?” Stories of his youth and his days as an up-and-coming rapper are the glue that holds the podcast together. He’s a gifted storyteller, painting vivid images for his audience. When he talks, I see moving images in my head. And those short films are dark comedies infused with the awkwardness that comes from being a self-described “extroverted introvert” who has struggled with depression and the bleak thoughts it brings.
Strange things happen to Budden. Or perhaps he makes things around him strange. This is what’s at the top of his Wikipedia page:
“This article is about the American rapper. It is not to be confused with former Vice President Joe Biden.”
And close to the bottom, there’s this:
“On March 30, 2012, Budden spent a night in jail and missed a concert [he was scheduled to perform at] in his home town over a $75 parking ticket.”
Budden always seems to be adjacent to someone or something bigger than himself, while remaining firmly entrenched in an unmoveable pettiness that has made him his own worst enemy. It’s also made him a punchline over the years. He’s suffered some stinging public humiliations, but he always manages to bounce back.
No one doubts that Budden possesses the talent and charisma to have been a much bigger star. He’s a phenomenal emcee and has a vicious pen. Nevertheless, he’s had only one certifiable hit, Pump It Up, which he released on Def Jam in 2002. He clashed with the label over the creative direction of his music and left under acrimonious circumstances to go independent.
Since leaving Def Jam, Budden has produced a body of work that has garnered acclaim from his peers and won him a loyal fan base, but he’s remained unable to gather enough critical mass to become a household name. That may be on the verge of changing.
Budden, who is retired from rapping, has reinvented himself as a cultural critic, and the combativeness and lack of a filter that made him an undesirable major label artist makes him perfect for a maturing social media landscape that doesn’t have any gatekeepers. His superpower is that he’s consistently and effortlessly meme-worthy.
It’s not always a good look, though.
During a stint on the reality show Love & Hip Hop, Budden had several less-than-stellar moments, including a rejected marriage proposal that was filmed in Times Square.
One of Budden’s most famous viral moments doesn’t even involve him. He was misidentified as the man racing the wrong way down an airport escalator and suffering a catastrophic fall. The gif is still in heavy rotation and comes up in results when you search his name.
Part of the Joe Budden legend is that he’s beefed with nearly everyone in hip hop at some point or another, and his summer 2016 beef with Drake spawned some excellent memes after Budden chased down a group of teenage Drake fans who were harassing him outside his New Jersey home. Budden was wearing a worn undershirt riddled with holes, and when he caught up with his tormentors, he was inexplicably armed with a handful of rocks.
The event was bizarre and potentially humiliating, but Budden’s ability to laugh at himself and take the ridicule in stride endeared him to many younger hip hop fans who were just discovering him. He appeared on MTV’s Uncommon Sense, hosted by his friend and sometime nemesis (fremesis?), Charlamagne tha God, to discuss the matter, demonstrating his media savvy in the process. After the fact, he’s able to tease out method from spontaneous madness.
Following the incident, Drake fans constantly derided Budden as irrelevant. Budden, the careful lyricist, sagely pointed out that they really meant he was insignificant. Recognizing that subtle difference may be what allowed Budden to capitalize on what should have been a loss and make himself both relevant and significant to mainstream hip hop culture again.
Budden somehow managed to parlay his embarrassing tussle with his adoloescent neighbors into successfully pitching a hip hop talk show to Complex. The show was called Everyday Struggle, and it catapulted Budden into a new level of stardom, one that seems destined to take him to even higher heights.