The king of Columbus: A look at Camu Tao’s posthumous ‘King of Hearts’

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With attention spans ever attenuated, the notion of writing about a record nearly a week after its release seems antiquated. But in death as in life, Camu Tao seems destined to be the recipient of long-overdue accolades.

Last Tuesday, “King of Hearts,” the posthumous effort from the Columbus, Ohio, native born Tero Smith, was released on avant-garde hip-hop haven Definitive Jux and the Buckeye state’s own Fat Possum, an imprint best known for releasing blues records from R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford and the Black Keys. More recently, it’s expanded its parameters to include adrenal punk rocker Wavves and garage-rockers Smith Westerns.


At a cursory glance, the collaboration makes no sense, but upon closer inspection, it’s a skeleton key for unlocking the byzantine sprawl that is Tao’s swan song. At its crux, “King of Hearts,” attempts to submerge Tao’s rap upbringing into a chaotic cauldron simmering with everything from Elvis Costello interpolations to manic electro-punk rock workouts to baleful ballads sung in a singularly weary wheeze.

It’s DIY and lo-fi, not necessarily out of aesthetic considerations, but because of the circumstances in which it was recorded: in the period following Tao’s diagnosis of a type of lung cancer not caused by asbestos or smoking. The songs that make up “King of Hearts” are by and large demos, hastily recorded and conceived -- some of them written in Pro Tools, others in GarageBand.

El-P, the founder of Definitive Jux and one of Smith’s best friends, made a promise to himself to see the record to completion. Hence, more than two years after Tao’s death in May 2008, “King of Hearts” is finally in stores (or at least, the few brick and mortar outlets that remain). Thematically, Smith vacillates between off-kilter love songs (“Be a Big Girl,’ “Funny Valentine”), straightforward but still obtuse braggadocio (“Major Team)” and death.

Indeed, Smith’s mortality shrouds the record in a noirish nimbus. The self-explanatory “Death” and the paranoia of “Bird Flu” create an uneasy feel, the sound of a man cognizant of his own mortality and determined to beat the reaper and finish his final record. This is the blues as Camu Tao saw it. Perhaps “Ind of the Worl” most accurately encapsulates his position, with its chorus that cries, “it’s the [end] of the [world] baby, so let’s have fun.”

Ben Westhoff of eMusic and Philip Mylnar of the Village Voice have both written well-reported features that document Tao’s final days and gather an array of reflections from his peers and collaborators. They’re recommended reads. As for the album itself, it’s almost impossible to categorize. Occupying an uncharted terrain between the Knux, Outkast/Andre 3000’s “Love Below” and the Ol’ Dirty Bastard, parts of it play like the incondite demo that it is and occasionally reveal Tao’s inchoate abilities as a rock songwriter. Sometimes it’s uneven, sometimes it’s great, but it’s always interesting and ahead of its time. No less than superstar rap fusionist Kid Cudi has admitted his appreciation for Camu Tao, and the influence is evident in listening to “King of Hearts.”

Though perhaps not the masterpiece Tao may have recorded had he been allowed the time to hone his skills in a new genre, “King of Hearts” yields an endlessly fascinating window into one of the most gifted and unsung musicians of his time. It points toward what could have been, and succeeds often enough to provide a fitting capstone to his life.

El-P has said that this will be Def Jux’s last release for the foreseeable future, and it proves to be a fitting send-off for the label: epitomizing its willingness to take chances, buck conventional logic and risk alienating large swaths of its target demographics. More important, the gambles often paid large dividends and allowed the label to reign over its respective roost. Unfortunately, neither Camu nor Def Jux leaves any immediate heirs.

-- Jeff Weiss

MP3: Camu Tao -- ‘Plot a Little’