Joe Budden signed to Def Jam at a peculiar juncture in the history of the venerable hip-hop label, arriving just as late-’90s and early-aughts heavy hitters like DMX, Ja Rule, and Ashanti had reached the twilight of their platinum hit streaks but before the middle-aughts influx of movers and shakers like Rihanna, Kanye West, Jeezy, and Ne-Yo. In 2003, when Budden released his self-titled debut — capitalizing on excitement for his single “Pump It Up,” a perfect East Coast hip-hop banger that may or may not be about jerking off — Def Jam made news when its subdivision Murder Inc, run by mogul and producer Irv Gotti and home to those Rule and Ashanti hits, was raided by federal agents investigating money-laundering allegations that Irv would ultimately beat at the cost of losing his distribution deal. A lawsuit over rights to early Ja recordings left the label and its president at the time, Lyor Cohen, on the hook for over $100 million. Lyor left, replaced by Jay-Z, who’d had a tiff with Budden over “Pump It Up” as plans for him to appear on an official remix went belly up, and he released a freestyle over the beat containing snark many believed to be directed at Joe. Joe Budden, meanwhile, reviewed well but didn’t sell well; the solid follow-up single “Fire (Yes, Yes Y’all)” bricked. It was a bad time for a bad sales showing. Jay built careers at Def Jam but also made mistakes. “Nobody is getting promoted the way they should be promoted,” LL Cool J told MTV in 2007, the year Jay stepped down and Budden was released after years of abortive attempts at crafting a sophomore album.
It’s a pattern that repeats with Joe, one he seems keenly aware of: He builds things. They break. Then he maneuvers his way into another situation, starting the timer again. Joe left Def Jam with a significant buzz and a respectable following, thanks in part to the mid-to-late-2000s Mood Muzik mixtape series, where he poured his heart out and tightened his craft while growing a dedicated army of “internet warriors” speaking his mind on his vlog, Joe Budden TV. Budden brought that attention into Slaughterhouse, a supergroup of interstate rap geniuses whose gifts were a perfect fit for Eminem’s Shady Records imprint, where the quest to balance integrity and commercial success played out again on the choppy if promising 2012 full length Welcome To: Our House. (In time, again, a tiff with his benefactor would complicate Budden’s career.) The next year, tensions between Joe and fellow tristate-area rapper and Love & Hip-Hop: New York cast member Consequence exploded into public squabbling and physical confrontations. Budden’s stay on the 2015 season of VH1’s Couples Therapy was interrupted when a warrant was issued for his arrest for skipping a court date in a domestic-abuse case involving an ex claiming he attacked her in public the previous year over accusations of infidelity. The charges were eventually dropped, but they weren’t the only accusations. Other exes — including models Esther Baxter, Tahiry Jose, and Cyn Santana — have told similar stories as recently as last fall. Nothing sticks, but Joe’s insistence that he’s never been physical with a partner runs counter to his own discussions of the day he and Baxter tussled prior to her miscarriage on the Mood Muzik track “Ordinary Love Shit Pt. 3: Closure” and in a 2011 interview with The Breakfast Club, in which he has since claimed he “misspoke.”
To be a fan of Joe Budden is to believe that he is good but troubled, smart but chaotic, a man destined for greatness who struggles to get out of his own way but who learns from his mistakes to the extent that his enemies allow. It’s the message of the inarguably great Mood Muzik tapes, and Joe Budden cuts like the passionate “10 Min.,” and of the glossy culture-page profiles in recent years where Joe, smiling in porkpie hats, explained how he turned the hot coals the hip-hop industry served him into diamonds in his lucrative talk show and vlog, The Joe Budden Podcast. There’s truth to it: Who better to give listeners the behind-the-scenes scoop on the business of rap than someone who has seen every side of it (and more or less retired from it after burning every bridge on the way out), who was touted as a mixtape wonder in the same class as future megastars like 50 Cent, who was chewed up and spit out but has maintained a presence in the ever-evolving intersection of music fandom and internet media? Who better to voice the inequities and absurdities of the game than a man immortalized in two Def Jam–themed fighting games, who didn’t get to release two Def Jam studio albums? The Joe Budden Podcast scratches a certain itch for a certain type of hip-hop fan, the irreverent hard-ass old enough to know the classics and observe the old bro code but young enough to have opinions on, say, Nicki Minaj’s personal life. Alongside his co-hosts Rory Farrell and Jamil “Mal” Clay, Joe created a kind of people’s history of the modern hip-hop industry, and points were made in episodes covering shocking events like the Pusha-T and Drake battle and the passing of XXXTentacion. In their wheelhouse, they’re witty and even relatable.
But in hip-hop media, irreverence and toxicity go hand in hand. And in spite of an open dialogue last year regarding widespread industry mistreatment of Black women and recent attempts by figures like Budden and The Breakfast Club’s Charlamagne tha God to reform and rehabilitate their images, improvement is slow going. As often as he is lacerating and funny, Joe is also bullish, presumptuous, and flat-out wrong. Although his unique purview sharpens his insights, he’s a screamer, a loose cannon, and a chauvinist prone to slut-shaming and disrespecting women, sometimes up close, a host who opens his platform to the inelegant caveman animus of figures like YouTube relationship counselor Kevin Samuels. This isn’t so much of a problem for an audience that sees itself reflected in some of this banter, that feels the pulse of the times shifting, that pines for freedom from a climate where controversial takes earn instant blowback from woke scolds. Really, the JBP is like a digital barbershop, a safe space to be an asshole in all of the good and the bad ways and to collectively work out an understanding of an increasingly complex planet. Joe being Joe, he’s found a way to make a tough time of a sure bet again. Having amassed a following willing to weather a flurry of horrific allegations, Joe Budden discovered the one thing they won’t tolerate.
The public, petty firing of Rory and Mal in a recent JBP episode over money disputes — that, after hours of explainers and rebuttals, don’t make sense as Joe tells it — seems like the latest bout of self-sabotage. To hear the former co-hosts tell it, Budden’s been lowballing them and combatively refusing to work out the accounting. The host’s clarifications have only muddied the matter. There’s no way to know who’s telling the entire truth, but Rory and Mal’s “I’ll Name This Response Later” reply — which references the pod’s early title, I’ll Name This Podcast Later — makes a compelling case for Joe as a friend who let success go to his head and started treating allies like employees. Apologies notwithstanding, it’s hard to unhear Joe threatening to sue his friends if they tried to start their own show and musing about how he could further make their lives hell through their contracts. It flew in the face of the reputation he’s cultivated as a friend to the music-industry underdog and an enemy to suits who only care about their own bottom line. In that abruptly deleted episode, Joe Budden became the kind of person he has spent his entire career fighting. In that moment, he showed the world the cold, calculated manipulator his detractors have often said he is.
Another video from DJ Olivia Dope of See, The Thing Is — a show launched last fall with the intention of building a bigger roster of shows around the JBP and giving Black women a seat at the table — outlined in meticulous detail her reasons for leaving the Joe Budden Network, which were rooted in Budden creating a work climate that made her feel uncomfortable, including sexually suggestive remarks and inappropriate gestures. Joe immediately apologized on several platforms, but some fans of the pod are mad about flip, defiant remarks in the most recent episode, which is named after a joke he makes about people who are upset with how he’s carrying himself in recent weeks. The mood in the Joe Budden Podcast subreddit is somber. The para-social illusion of eavesdropping on a hangout session between friends that listeners got from the best episodes is gone. The replacement hosts are too deferential. The vibes are wrong. The mood is argumentative. There’s much he can’t explain. Budden has broken it again. But if there’s anything to know about Joe Budden it’s that he’ll always find a way to remain in the conversation. If there’s anything to take away from all of this, to try not to forget in time when future opportunities require further image reform, it’s Olivia Dope needing to provide time-stamped footage to back her claims to avoid having her experience pawned off as another disingenuous smear aimed at Joe’s pockets. It’s to know for sure, who you support with your time and patronage, what they’re about, and what they’re capable of. Rory seemed genuinely surprised to find himself on the business end of Joe Budden’s rage. Don’t ever be surprised.