Technically, Joe Budden is, by definition, a one-hit wonder.
The same Joe who criticized Lil Yachty’s always-sunny positivity was the voice encouraging bodies to gleefully gyrate in 2003 and beyond. Featured on Madden NFL 2004 and You Got Served, and twice GRAMMY-nominated, ”Pump It Up” was inescapable. Almost 15 years later, Budden hasn’t escaped “Pump It Up”―the song is his Frankenstein.
It's also one of hip-hop’s greatest pump fakes.
Imagine buying Joe Budden's self-titled debut album with expectations for highly energetic, rug-cutting dance music. There’s no denying the album was crafted with commercial consideration—“#1,” “U Ain’t Gotta Go Home,” and “Fire (Yes, Yes Y’All)” are all cut from the same creative consciousness—but the surprise is the introspection found on deep cuts “Walk With Me,” “Real Life In Rap,” “Calm Down,” and “10 Mins.”
The transitions are abrasive; uptempo radio records suddenly shift into sedated, confessional revelations of drug addiction, struggles with depression, and other issues tackled with fearless honesty. The album is like going to a popular party and watching your host suddenly vomit personal demons between taking shots.
Joe Budden—the real Joe Budden—had deeper emotions to explore, though. The sincere, transparent struggle in his music didn’t fit the house-party anthem lane he found himself driving down. Instead of being boxed up with future club one-offs J-Kwon (“Tipsy”) and MIMS (“This Is Why I’m Hot”), Budden dug underground and began his rap life anew. He would never create another “Pump It Up," and he would barely return to the charts, but he did become the soul-bearing wordsmith he was destined to be.
Joe isn't alone in the curious case of the misleading single. “Devastated,” the lead release from Joey's sophomore album, ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$, and his most successful single to date, is a warm, pop-rap anthem―a complete departure from his throwback boom-bap aesthetic. Early reviews were mixed; he had essentially crafted a catchy hit that could live on radio, but hardcore Pro Era fans felt like the changeup wasn’t representative of the artist they knew and love. The song is an uplifting vibe, three minutes of positive reinforcement and we-made-it celebration; the kind of single that gives you the feeling of sunnier days. While Joey’s album is sonically crafted with a similar palette―the music is soul-warming and melodic―the content is much deeper and critical than "Devastated" would ever lead fans to believe.
Instead of simply uplifting, Joey made an album that was pleasant, yet extremely political. Imagine if Ice Cube and Public Enemy berated America over lovely, lush sound beds? Singing their criticism from the soul instead of barking their vexation from the gut? Initially, I found Joey’s approach to lack the anger necessary to truly represent the rage of America’s shortcomings, but yelling isn’t the only way to make a point. “Devastated” helped Joey to break new ground and acquire a plethora of new listeners. It’s far from the best representation of the content that awaited fans on the album, but it also isn't as out of place as Joe's "Pump It Up."
Kendrick Lamar is king of the misleading lead single. Before his major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, Interscope released “Swimming Pools (Drank).” While the song is a brilliant examination of escapism disguised as a turn-up anthem, it doesn’t give any indication it's just a piece of a much bigger story. Without giving away the tight-knit, cinematic narrative of his day in the life account, Kendrick slyly kept the bigger picture a secret. This isn’t easily executed, stories are meant to be told from start to finish and removing even a tiny segment can be pivotal, yet the Compton storyteller was able to craft a radio hit without revealing it was actually no more than a puzzle piece.
Due to the conceptual complexity of his albums, Kendrick is always extra careful when it comes to single selection. With To Pimp a Butterfly, neither “i” nor “Blacker The Berry” mislead, but they also don’t broadcast the album’s sonic and thematic direction. Both singles articulate an approach different than the remainder of the music found on his debut, but nothing could have ever prepared listeners for the advancements of his daring artistry.
Concept albums must deceive to truly keep the secret of their contents hidden. Lupe Fiasco’s beautiful single “Superstar” doesn’t prepare you for the roller coaster that is Michael Young History’s odyssey. Only a handful of songs from The Cool push the story forward—it’s not one consistent story like GKMC—but the storytelling is superb. Part of what makes The Cool such a fascinating album is how it’s a collection of songs and a concept album packaged together as a sole body of work. A project that allows "Dumb It Down" and "The Coolest" to share a room in the same house.
Lupe’s approach for The Cool is different than Childish Gambino’s for Because the Internet. “3005” is arguably the most misleading single in recent memory. It’s catchy and sweeter than candy corn, the kind of lead single that had crossover promise. While being a rare, existential crisis disguised as a party starter, the song doesn’t give any indication of the Because rabbit hole. There’s a rush when you unexpectedly find yourself in a carefully woven concept that’s too intricate to be captured in a solitary song.
Singles are like the music industry’s free sample―just a taste of a much bigger meal. Usually, a lead single is an indication of what that meal will taste like or, at the very least, has the potential to taste like. That’s the beauty of a curveball when all ideas and expectations are destroyed.
There are countless cases of good singles and albums that don’t live up to their greatness. Cudi’s Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ has good records but nothing crafted like the incredible “Surfin',” Freeway’s Philadelphia Freeway doesn’t have a song that rivals the astounding “What We Do,” and I’m certain anyone expecting Lil Uzi Vert to make 15 variations of “XO Tour Llif3” was rather disappointed by Luv Is Rage 2. There's a beautiful unpredictability when it comes to music.
Just remember, don’t judge a book by its movie, don’t judge a movie by its Rotten Tomatoes score, and don’t judge an album by its single. You might be pleasantly surprised or deeply disappointed, but that’s the risk we take when pressing play.
By Yoh, aka The Curious Case of Benyohmin Button, aka @Yoh31