Camu Tao - King of Hearts
Record Label: Definitive Jux / Fat Possum Records
Release Date: August 17, 2010
Camu Tao was a very busy man during his 30 years of life. He got his start as a very competent producer, a job title he kept on his resume up until his death in 2008. He soon moved onto the flip side of the process as an MC, teaming up with a range of different artists. From the MHz crew with RJD2 to the Definitive Jux supergroup The Weathermen, Camu was not one to shy away from increasing his work load. He quickly became a household name amongst underground hip-hop enthusiasts due to his imaginative productions and soulful voice.
While he appeared on a variety of mixtapes and Definitive Jux samplers, Camu was still without a full solo album release on the label. Unfortunately, he wasn't around to finally see the release of his brainchild, King of Hearts, on Definitive Jux. He succumbed to lung cancer on May 25th, 2008 after a harsh battle with the disease, just a month before his 31st birthday. And with Definitive Jux close to folding a couple of years later due to the departure of its founder, Jamie Meline (El-P), many were afraid Camu's vision would never see the light of day. But, after a few delays and ton of hype from El-P, King of Hearts finally saw a release.
I'm not going to lie, King of Hearts is an incredibly difficult album to write about for a variety of reasons. It boils down to the fabled Holy Grail of Hip-Hop in the circle I run with. My interest in Camu was a bit reserved compared to a few of my acquaintances, but I waited with bated breath with every mention of its compiling online. After waiting for it for so long, it's a very odd thing to finally have it in my hands and pounding through my speakers. Another reason it's hard to write about King of Hearts is because the sound and emotion contained inside these sixteen tracks is immense and unique. Camu's production throughout the entire album is progressive, even in today's quickly evolving hip-hop scene. It still catches me off guard through subsequent playthroughs. King of Hearts is probably the sweetest surprise I've received from an album in some time, and that's saying something.
King of Hearts starts off with a bang. Camu's vocals on the first track “Be a Big Girl” are accompanied by blaring, distortion laden guitar chords. This modified version of Elvis Costello's “Big Boys” is a fantastic beginner for the album, although a few tracks later on pale in comparison. Camu's vocals here range from Prince soft to Joey Ramone raspy, but remain surprisingly strong throughout. Fans of his Central Services project with El-P will immediately be reminded that Camu has the vocal chops to carry an album, and he proves it on King of Hearts almost instantly.
One thing to remember while listening to King of Hearts though is that recording on this album was stopped abruptly do to Camu's passing. This leaves a few songs as nothing more than bare bones hooks. Most notably is “Actin a Ass” which is barely half a minute long. The rawness of the vocals only serves as a reminder of the events that came before the album's release. El-P described it perfectly as “a snapshot of an artist mid-evolution,” because that's exactly what Camu was. While the production stylings Camu employs on King of Hearts are gaining popularity today, they were incredibly progressive only a few years ago. The title track “King of Hearts” is the best example of that. With a simplistic beat and Camu's signature distortion heavy guitar riffs, it stands as a testament to what could have been.
The most polished track on King of Hearts is definitely “Plot a Little” a song that was released in 2007 as part of Definitive Jux's collaboration with Adult Swim, Definitive Swim. In this song, Camu calls for the destruction of conformity in the hip-hop scene. But he delivers that message in a positive way with a percussion driven beat and an exhibition of his range as a vocalist. The choruses are sung beautifully, while the verses showcase his lyrical abilities.
But my favorite track on King of Hearts comes closer to the end. “The Perfect Plan” is simplistic, like most of the other songs on the album, but features a cool piano background melody. Camu's pleads, “Don't start an argument, we're already naked,” accompanied by whistles and noises of conversation. The song has an amazing vibe, and sets the scene of a few friends chilling in their basement making music. King of Hearts closes with “Fuck Me” an acapella version of a track from Central Service's Forever Frozen in Television Time EP. The emotion in the original song is amplified immensely by stripping it to just the vocals. Camu's passion and love for what he did is hard to miss as the album winds down to its conclusion.
To repeat what I said before, King of Hearts is a hard album to write about. It has its faults, but they are understandable. The majority of the vocals on the tracks feel very rough. It was obvious the writing for this album was at its earlier stages when Camu passed away, but the production does a very good job of making up for the low quality of the vocals. Fortunately, Camu's fantastic voice still breaks through. I love distorted, uneven recordings, but fans of cleaner audio work may be put off by the album's overall quality. The disappointment comes in the potential. This album had the potential to be a huge hit, with both underground and mainstream fans alike. The glimpses we are offered in King of Hearts are amazing, but it's heartbreaking it had to end like this.