Historically speaking, posthumous hip hop albums have always delivered mixed returns. For every loving, painstakingly curated offering, there have been no less than ten soulless, legacy-raping cash-ins waiting in the wings with track lists padded with recycled freestyles and ill-conceived guest features from characters whom the deceased either didn’t like or never met. That is to say, for every Jay Stay Paid or UGK 4 Life, there’s a Biggie Duets, a Pac’s Life, or an Eye Legacy. Def Jukie Camu Tao’s long awaited solo outing King of Hearts steers mercifully clear of many of the pitfalls that have made similar works such a chore. Lung cancer unfortunately claimed Camu’s life in 2008. Def Jux head honcho El-P’s stepped in to complete King of Hearts, and the finished product doesn’t appear to dilute Camu’s vision or panhandle for hits. It is a stunning concoction that finds pieces of hip hop, punk rock, R&B, 8-bit, and new wave co-mingling in its bleak, dystopic world.
King of Hearts’ triumph doesn’t so much lie in its daring to cover so much musical ground as it does in how well everything gelled into a singular and accessible sound. Hip hop and rock have a long history of torrid trysts and affairs. More often than not, though, somebody fucks something up thanks to a number of pitfalls ranging from a rudimentary understanding of rock (i.e. most N.E.R.D. albums, Lil Wayne’s Rebirth, etc.) to piss poor mic skills (Limp Bizkit, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, etc.). Camu was unnaturally gifted on all those fronts, and King of Hearts vaults past the competition thanks to his thorough understanding of the inner workings of the disparate sounds at his disposal. He races through wildly divergent genre experiments like the paranoid synth-pop of “Get At You”, the hard hitting beats and rhymes of “Ind of the World”, and the sprightly pop punk of “Intervention” in a matter of minutes without ever coming up short on momentum or catchy melodies.
If there’s any fault to be found with the album, it’s the nagging sense that it may have taken a totally different shape had Camu lived to finish it. It’s hard to tell whether the relative sonic minimalism of the wonky synth and drum machine number, “Get At You”, or the sorta repetitive, mostly instrumental “Bird Flu” were the result of a conscious effort by the artist to pare things down to the bone or whether he just wasn’t around to polish them. Album highlight “Actin’ a Ass” especially illuminates King of Hearts’ air of unfinished business. Spanning a mere four bars over the course of 35 seconds, “Actin’ a Ass” is by turns savagely catchy and obnoxiously brief, which isn’t that bad of a description for the album as a whole.
Whether or not King of Hearts sounds unfinished in parts, the record remains routinely engaging to listen to. King of Hearts is a shockingly accomplished debut and also a maddeningly promising farewell. Camu will be missed.