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Hip Hop’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”

Why you should be listening to The Joe Budden Podcast

Kitanya Harrison
May 24, 2018 · 15 min read
PHoto by Johnny Nunez/WireImage/Getty

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.”

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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.

Everyday Struggle was created in the mold of sports discussion shows like First Take and made for the YouTube generation­. Budden and his co-host, YouTuber DJ Akademiks, quarreled about a variety of topics, while hip hop journalist, Nadeska Alexis, moderated. The show launched in April 2017 and was soon must-see TV.

I became privy to the Joe Budden renaissance after hearing Charlamagne interview Akademiks for his podcast. During the interview, Charlamagne mentioned Budden had been ranting about legendary music executive L.A. Reid’s departure from Epic Records (a division of Sony Music Entertainment) over allegations of sexual misconduct. I went on YouTube, ran a search, and found a clip from the 21st episode of Everyday Struggle.

There was Budden sporting a scarlet Raiders fitted cap, man capris, and a sweatshirt emblazoned “ROB THE RICH” as he called L.A. Reid a sexual predator and refused to use the word “allegedly” as cover. On the split screen, Akademiks’ eyebrows almost leapt off his face as he blinked in shock. As the discussion continued, Budden kept touching his earpiece — one of the producers was trying to get him under control. He was having none of it. He turned to address the camera directly and said, “Doug Morris [Chairman of Sony Music Entertainment], you 100% knew that L.A. Reid was a sexual predator when you hired him. This is Joe Budden talking to you.” He went on to spit roast Reid and those he believed to be complicit in enabling him over the years. The segment ended with Budden adjusting his cap and saying firmly, “Fuck L.A. Reid.”

I caught up on the back episodes of Everyday Struggle, and when I got out on the other side, Joe Budden had become essential to my entertainment. His frenetic energy, morning drinking, and mood swings were riveting. As was his complete disregard for building or maintaining any but a handful of industry relationships, ones that are more personal than professional.

In the earliest episodes, Budden was constantly on the attack, and his co-hosts had no idea how to manage him. Over time, their relationships began to mellow, and it’s the personal growth they allowed to come through on camera that put the show a cut above the rest. I couldn’t stop watching.

There was the now infamous interview with Lil Yachty, the show’s first guest. In the way young people who have recently come into huge fortunes might, the smiling rapper claimed he was always happy, and Budden went ballistic, arguing that no one is ever happy all the time. It’s one of those semantic arguments he’ll latch onto like a pitbull and refuse to let go of. Memes of Budden bursting into carefree scenarios to yell at children made the rounds. As did Yachty’s reaction, a calm plea to “Chill, my nigga.”

Everyday Struggle’s watershed moment was the 2017 BET Hip Hop Awards. The cast and crew took a field trip to L.A. to host a red carpet special, and it was soon clear just how important the show had become to hip hop culture during its short tenure. Their corner of the carpet was the place to be seen. Budden knew nearly everyone and took the lead during most of the interviews. He was personable, funny, and surprisingly professional and non-combative. “Media Joe” was in full effect.

Then the Migos showed up.

The Migos, who are notorious for giving dry interviews, weren’t pleased with the way Budden had treated their label-mate, Lil Yachty, during his visit to the show, and they were frosty and withdrawn.

It was difficult for Budden and his co-hosts to decipher the Migos’ low mumbling over the din on the carpet.

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Budden who’d been on his best behavior for hours quickly ran out of patience. Utterly fed up, he tossed his mic and got up and walked away.

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The Migos took offense and stood up with much remonstrating and rolling up of floral silk shirt sleeves.

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The threat of violence flummoxed Akademiks, who was used to aggression coming in the form of trollish YouTube comments.

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And an interested crowd gathered to watch the fireworks.

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The reactions to Budden’s reactions became iconic. The man creates meta memes, people.

The Migos Incident thrust Everyday Struggle ahead of its competition, and the show seemed destined to become a longstanding staple in hip hop culture. But it was not to be. When Budden’s contract was up, he was unable to come to terms with Complex, and they parted ways after only nine months.

When Budden opened up to discuss the reasons for his departure, he revealed to many of his new fans the rough diamond of his small media empire: his podcast.

The clip of Budden explaining how things fell apart at Complex has over 1 million views on YouTube. In it, Budden doubles down on one of the themes that won over viewers of Everyday Struggle: his willingness to discuss frankly the way creators are taken advantage of and his refusal to play along.

As Everyday Struggle’s numbers started to plummet, Budden’s podcast, which had always been quietly successful, began to soar.

The Joe Budden Podcast may bear one man’s name, but it’s a group effort. It’s billed as being “With Rory and Mal” — two of Budden’s long-time friends, and it’s recorded at the home of Budden’s friend and engineer, Parks, who also gets a mic. This move to Parks’ apartment and out of a studio is when the podcast, which has always been hilarious and entertaining, really found its stride. It feels more personal now.

The format of the weekly show is simple. The friends discuss sex and relationships and the latest trending cultural topics. They spend a lot of time talking about hip hop and the music business and dabble in sports and other entertainment from time to time. Here they are discussing long-distance relationships and the protocol for responding to nudes in a clip from Episode 163:

Each episode, there is a rough list of topics Budden leads them through, but there are no pre-production meetings and nobody does any research. As a result, some segments are four grown men taking turns being aggressively loud and wrong about basic facts a simple Google search could clear up.

It should be off-putting, and I suppose sometimes it is. But most of the time, it’s just funny. It’s the casualness of the setting and tone that does it. It’s friends shooting the breeze. No one’s really trying to show anyone else up. Any heated disagreements are always defused with a well-timed joke.

The smartest move Budden has made is not to rely on guests for the show to work (this was something else he clashed with Complex about). He knows enough celebrities and music industry insiders and has a big enough platform that his podcast could become a go-to spot on promotional runs — particularly because of the sleeper tracks he, Rory, and Mal play at the end of each show to give artists they enjoy a signal boost. But Budden is adamant about maintaining the integrity of the show. Guests do stop by from time to time, but they usually give their views on whatever the topics at hand are, laugh at the jokes, and don’t do too much self-promotion.

Budden understands that he and his co-hosts are the draw.

Rory, who just turned 28, is the youngest of the group. He’s a red-headed Irish guy from Queens, who made his name on the Hennypalooza circuit, traveling the country throwing huge liquor-soaked parties. He’s The White Friend™ — the one who crossed a Black frat and has invites to the cookout in perpetuity. There is something earnest and sweet about him that brings a real humanity to the show. But every now and then, his Irish dander gets up.

In one episode, he talked about a run-in with a racist cab driver who felt comfortable spewing anti-Black rhetoric at him. He began recording on his phone and asked the driver to repeat himself. Disgusted, he got out and ordered a new ride.

“Wait, so you got out of the car?” was Budden’s response. The serious moment collapsed in on itself as, laughing, the others speculated about whether Rory would have been better off taking the ride and giving the driver a bad rating.

The topic soon switched to why the driver went full-on “let’s commiserate as racists” with a stranger in the first place. The consensus was that it was Rory’s new haircut, which was a little too tight and made him look like a skinhead.

This exchange sums up the show perfectly: It’s an improvised, darkly comedic radio play.

Mal, like Budden, is in his late 30s and has the strongest personality of the supporting cast. His comedic timing is near perfect at times, and he can create laugh-out-loud moments by merely shifting the tone of his voice. His frequent comment, “[something someone just said] is wild” nearly always gets a chuckle. He can be as combative as Budden, but he’s not as passionate. That’s something he and Budden butt heads over — his “too cool” persona. Every now and then, Budden gets annoyed, and his voice drops as he chides, “Don’t do that, Mal.”

Mal is something of a mystery. It’s a running joke that he’s never had a job, and Budden often teases him about secretly being a drug dealer. Mal is also a wild card — he’s the least politically correct of the group, even more so than Budden.

The podcast enters the danger zone whenever they discuss women’s issues. Rory starts fidgeting and can’t quite look Mal in the eye as they brace themselves. “This podcast is never going to get any sponsors,” Rory nearly always says with an exasperated laugh at some point during the conversation.

Whenever women’s issues come up, my first thought is: Stuff Mal into a burlap sack and sew it shut. Every now and then there’s a jump cut in the edit that lets you know they probably should have taken the advice. As the conversation goes on, I nearly always end up thinking: Yeah…Put Joe in the sack with Mal. Budden starts strong sometimes, but he can talk himself into a corner. Rory is making some good points, I’ll think. But it’s often soon followed by, Ugh…Shut up, Rory, and eventually, Et tu, Parks?

The four friends have spent most of their adult lives in the music business, specifically in hip hop, and, at times, were immersed in groupie culture. During these segments, they’re grappling with the casual misogyny they’ve absorbed over the years. The conversations are uncomfortable, but there are attempts to understand the issues and achieve real growth, particularly on Rory and Budden’s parts. For things to change, men need to have these kinds of discussions with each other, and even though I wish they were further along, it’s heartening to see the effort being made. I also appreciate them having the courage to do it publicly, knowing what a third rail it can be.

Parks is in this mid-thirties, and he’s very tall, angular and pale. You wouldn’t know that if you watch recent episodes of the podcast, though. At some point, the decision was made to leave him off-camera. At first, I thought it was a little disrespectful. After all, they’re at his crib and using his sound equipment. But in hindsight, it was kind of a genius move. It’s something else that gives the show a postmodern sitcom vibe. He’s a fully formed supporting character, who’s a disembodied voice.

Parks is more agreeable than everyone else, but he’s a low-key savage. His nonchalant delivery masks the viciousness of some of the jokes he lobs at the others.

Roasting is an important element of the show, and the sharp jabs the four cast members throw at each other are underpinned by a specific construct of manliness that can be quite rigid. They’re all uncomfortable getting too close to anything feminine or vaguely homoerotic. The sometimes caustic insults are a way of maintaining a safe distance.

Budden is more secure than the others, but like many New York men from certain backgrounds, he and his co-hosts play the “pause” game. Whenever anyone gets too close to the boundaries of traditional masculinity, they or someone else says “pause” — just to let you know they don’t really swing that way. It’s immature and retrograde, but, I have to admit, it can be pretty humorous.

This isn’t to say there aren’t any moments where the men show each other genuine emotional support. (Pause?)

In one episode, Budden hesitantly began to recount his break-up with his long-time barber. A hushed silence fell. You could have heard a pin drop. The seriousness of the situation demanded that even Mal abandon his aloof demeanor. He and the others gently prodded Budden (pause…), and let him know he could share his story free from ridicule.

Budden spoke of his dissatisfaction with the relationship, and his inability to demand what he needed. He spoke of his anxiety and shame over choosing ghosting as the means to end things. He was guilty about feeling happier with his new barber. He also discussed the awkward call his ex-barber made to express how hurt he was.

The support his friends showed him created quite a beautiful moment. I might even go so far as to call it tender. (PAUSE!)

This is the power of the content Budden creates. It’s authentic. He wants consumers who are genuinely interested in his point of view. It’s refreshing in a world where so many creators are just trying to get as many followers as possible, so they can flip them for monetization, while others are looking for acolytes.

Budden is also not afraid to look bad, something else that’s missing behind all the Snapchat and Instagram filters.

I’m serious about the sitcom potential for Budden’s podcast content. I genuinely believe he has the material to create the hip hop Curb Your Enthusiasm on his hands.

He has so many great stories.

There’s the time his family hired a fraudulent hypnotist to help him stop smoking. There’s his teenage son putting out a diss track against him. There’s him and Mal in lock-up being forced to watch aspiring Dominican rappers audition for him. There’s him inside a strip club, sitting Indian style in a bouncy house, staring at some point in the distance past the dancers. There’s him catching a comprehensive fade from a muscle-bound twenty-something outside a fried chicken joint.

I would watch. I think plenty of other people would, too.

Budden recently signed a deal with Revolt TV, and he’s begun airing weekend brunch discussions filmed at his house on his YouTube channel. Of his new opportunity — one that hopefully will allow him to pick up where he left off with Everyday Struggle — Budden, ever insouciant and inappropriate, screeched happily, “I love Revolting!”

An earlier version of this article misidentified the man tumbling down the escalator as Joe Budden. It was not. This is an urban legend. The article also incorrectly identified Hennessy as the sponsor of Hennypalooza. Thank you to Joe Budden himself for providing these notes.

Written by

*squinting in Nanny of the Maroons* | Read my essay collection, DISPOSABLE PEOPLE, DISPOSABLE PLANET: books2read.com/u/mBOYNv | IG: kitanyaharrison

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