Camu Tao, born Tero Smith, was a multi-talented performer and member of the Definitive (nee Def) Jux family. Coming up in Columbus, OH in the late 90s, he worked with underground rap pioneers El-P, Aesop Rock, RJD2, and Cage, among others. His “Hold the Floor” was the archetypal Def Jux cut, with a raw, grinding beat and technically sharp, unapologetic rhymes.
Sadly, Camu Tao passed away after a protracted battle with cancer in 2008, a month shy of his 31st birthday. Not only did he leave behind his family, friends and fiance, but he also left behind the songs that were to be his debut solo album, King of Hearts. Luckily, the album is set to be released on August 17 by Definitive Jux and Fat Possum Records.
King of Hearts paints a picture of an artist on the edge of something special. The album’s 16 tracks are a bit rough around the edges, as most were demos when Camu passed. Still, King of Hearts finds Camu reinventing himself in the mold of K-OS and Saul Williams, with a unique style that is difficult to pin down. Moving away from the distinct hip-hop of Def Jux to a more Afro-punk sound, Camu is at ease over programmed beats, chiptune synths and crunchy guitar riffs. “Bird Flu” and “When You’re Going Down” are dancefloor-ready pieces of electropunk, equal parts mournful and angry: surely the emotions of a man during his last days.
Whether crooning on “Fonny Valentine,” political-rapping on “Ind of the World,” or swinging on “The Perfect Plan,” Camu is sharp, poignant and emotive. The hook for “Plot a Little,” a catchy, Neptunes-like sing-along, captures the album’s feel: “Rock for a little bit / fly for a little bit / plot for a little bit / make it contagious.” Over King of Hearts, the sonic dabblings of the self-described “rebel to conformity” are definitely contagious.
The music of artists like Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake, and Joy Division’s Ian Curtis is notable for its posthumous influence. Camu Tao’s King of Hearts will probably not have as far a reach, but it will stand as a vibrant final farewell from an artist who obviously had much more to share.