Had Camu Tao's King of Hearts been released in 2008 when it was originally slated to, it probably would have felt ahead of its time, and probably also would have been underappreciated. The producer/MC's solo debut is pop-focused and hook-driven, more sung than rapped, and paves the way to what Janelle Monáe, Kid Cudi, and even 808 & Heartbreak-era Kanye West did later (though indie rappers like Saul Williams and Serengeti, and of course, Aesop Rock, had already been doing similar things for years). Released posthumously, however, in 2010 (Camu died in 2008 after a two-year battle with lung cancer), the album feels simultaneously prescient and dated, with not only the occasional relevance-blemishing reference to contemporary culture (Condoleeza Rice, President Bush) but with its focus on pop-rap placing it stylistically on the back end of cutting edge.
But even taken as is, it's clear that Camu was interested in pushing boundaries and melding genres, both for him and hip-hop itself -- as anyone who's heard his 2001 single "Hold the Floor," he's a more than able MC -- and the record succeeds because of this willingness to experiment. Many of the songs are unfinished, although unlike Biggie's Life After Death, Dilla's Donuts, or even Jeff Buckley's Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk (all posthumous or nearly posthumous albums), Camu doesn't have the first solo record(s) already in the bag to give fans a reference point. Instead, all we have to build our impression from are the literal bits and pieces of songs: some without verses ("Bird Flu"), some without production ("Fuck Me"), some practically interludes ("Intervention," "Actin A Ass"). But these fragments can -- and should -- be understood as incomplete, because it's clear that Camu Tao, even if he wasn't quite there yet, knew what he was doing, and what he wanted to do. He was studying the classics ("Death" references Phil Spector, and "Fonny Valentine" is a less-than-subtle play on the Rodgers & Hart standard) and testing out new phrasing (the triplets of "Play O Run"), but he's also still finding his voice as a singer, and as a pop songwriter, figuring out where repetition and muddied lyrics work and where they don't. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the most complete-sounding tracks ("Ind of the Worl," "Major Team") are the ones on which he most returns to traditional rapping, but perhaps it's better to look, as comparison, to the EP he completed with El-P in 2005 under the name Central Services, but which wasn't released until just before King of Hearts. Here, Camu Tao's thoughts and structures are more fully fleshed out, more songs than just ideas and sketches, and here, what he was and what he could do, and could have done, seem so much more fully whole. All of which is to say that it is a tragedy that Camu died before he was able to truly finish this record. Because despite all its references to death, King of Hearts is an album that feels very much alive.