"Development hell" doesn’t even begin to describe what Joe Budden has gone through. Since the rapper released his debut album in 2003, he’s endured enough industry torture to write his own version of Dante’s Inferno. Budden’s self-titled album performed respectably for Def Jam, spawning the good-time summer hit “Pump It Up,” but the label stifled his follow-up at every turn. It certainly didn’t help that, by most accounts, label giant Jay-Z just didn’t care for the guy.
Six years later, a beaten and bruised Budden has finally released that sophomore follow-up on a small independent label. In a sign of just how much he’s matured in the interim, however, it’s surprisingly devoid of axe grinding. The closest Budden comes to addressing his major-label past occurs as part of a series of fleeting dreams on “On My Sleep”: “Met a bum with a mansion/ Invited me in/ We politicked, about politics/ Said something about Def Jam/ I didn’t acknowledge it.”
As the cover image of Budden bound in a straightjacket suggests, Padded Room is less interested in industry politics than it is Budden’s inner demons. Here Budden battles with his temper and frets over fiancees. On one track he loses sleep over his girlfriend’s double timing, then, a few tracks later, unrepentantly confesses to cheating himself. Personal failures and failed relationships haunt him. “She be calling me name,” he sings on “Exxxes,” “Screaming real loud/ I would think she in pain/ Niggas try to tell me her head was insane.” He reluctantly confides to a therapist — "Look, I never thought I’d be here” — and when that fails turns to God on the album’s penultimate track, “Pray for Me.”
But peace doesn’t come that easily. Rejecting one of hip-hop’s sappiest conventions, prayer doesn’t absolve the troubled rapper. Instead, God responds furiously to Budden’s requests, berating him for his selfishness: “I blessed you with health, family and wealth, but all the blessings that you’ve received you still always want help.”
Budden has grown immeasurably in the half decade he spent in purgatory, where he honed his skills on a series of mixtapes and online-only releases. On his 2003 debut, he was arrogant and scattered, too often losing his train of thought and reaching for throwaway puns. The Joe Budden on Padded Room, however, is focused and hungry, spinning dense, psychological yarns that build for dozens and dozens of bars. Budden scratched and clawed for his second chance, and he hasn’t squandered it.