Last Tuesday, New Jersey rapper Joe Budden released his latest album, “No Love Lost,” which is on track to move a respectable (if far from blockbuster) 27,000 units in its first week. “A lot of people are saying it’s my most cohesive project, my best project to date, and I attribute that to being in a better place than I’ve been in some time,” Budden says.
The day before the album came out, millions watched Budden, a cast member on the third season of the VH1 reality show “Love & Hip Hop,” enjoy a celebratory meal with his ex-girlfriend, model Tahiry Jose. The special occasion was Budden recently passing a drug test. The rapper’s fans got to watch him overcome his demons, then experience a product of this success, all within the span of about 48 hours.
Together, the album and the episode offered a satisfying arc, and a rare one: Reality TV is usually about watching our favorite musicians implode, not triumph.
The format can either make an artist, as with “American Idol”-type talent competitions, or break them — often the case when artists sign on for voyeuristic celebrity docudramas. Even if a starring role on a reality show doesn’t kill a musician’s brand, it often kills the music — see Jessica Simpson’s ubiquitous endorsements and irrelevant recording career.
So, how has Budden managed to not only escape the reality curse, but use this reliably trashy form of entertainment to actually enhance his career?
“I’m 100 percent confident in my abilities and what I do, so this was just another outlet to raise awareness to allow people to see said talent,” Budden says of his reality show casting. He’s become a breakout star on the series — a popular and controversial look at the exploits of rappers and, more often, their love interests — thanks to his honesty, penchant for speaking like a college poetry professor and some meticulously groomed facial hair.
And Budden’s reality fame seems to be a one-way street, bringing in new fans with little risk of alienating his hardcore hip-hop base. “I have fans who are fans of the music; they’re not interested in TV. They want to know when the next song is coming, when is the next Slaughterhouse project,” he says of his collaborative group with Crooked I, Joell Ortiz and Royce da 5’9”. “I have some people solely familiar with reality television, and some people that are casual fans who are concerned with my personal life.”
Budden says “No Love Lost,” a star-filled, diverse collection of tracks, was made for his music fans, with no thought to courting those who found him through “L&HH.”
“I made a conscious decision many years ago to not make music for anyone outside of myself, and in that way, whether I have one fan, or a billion fans, they’re genuine fans,” Budden says.
“Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta” star K. Michelle has also parlayed her involvement with the show into career gains, but her fan base isn’t quite as compartmentalized. The R&B singer says the program has brought her new listeners, and she has even recorded a track about her fellow castmates, called “Shut Up.”
“Anything in my life is gonna be on the show, and anything I’m going through in life, I’m gonna sing about,” the Memphis singer says.
K. Michelle’s role on “Love” has given her a second chance at a high-profile recording career. She has said, on the show, that a volatile personal and business relationship with her ex-boyfriend and ex-manager, producer Memphitz, ruined her professional reputation. (In response to her allegations of physical abuse, Memphitz filed a defamation lawsuit late last year).
“I think I’ve been able to use it to tell my story, and been able to use it to get my music out there to people. . . . ” she says of the show. “I know there are concerns with musicians and reality TV, and I have those same concerns — you can open yourself up so much as an individual that people overlook your gifts.”
So far, that hasn’t happened: the powerhouse vocalist has a new deal with Atlantic Records, a new album, “Rebellious Soul,” tentatively slated for release later this year, and she is touring. (K. Michelle is scheduled to perform at the Howard Theatre on Feb. 20.)
“Love & Hip Hop” has received plenty of criticism for perpetuating only the worst stereotypes and casting African Americans in a negative light. While Budden and K. Michelle have used the platform to spread awareness of important issues — Budden opening up about his struggles with substance abuse and K.Michelle speaking out against domestic violence — isn’t there concern that, eventually, being associated with the table-shaking, drink-throwing, groupie-filled universe that is “Love & Hip Hop” could be damaging?
Budden seems unfazed: “True talent always rises to the top.”
Godfrey is a freelance writer.