The new album track "Death" from the late Camu Tao includes a refrain with him singing in a pleading tone, "Death! Where have you been all my life?" It is hard to ignore the poignancy of these passionately sung lyrics by the artist, born Teru Smith, who passed from lung cancer two years ago. It seems like, in a morbidly dark and humorous way, the Ohio born artist was taunting his pending death, which struck him down on May 25th, 2008, a month before his 31st birthday, following a two year battle with cancer.
Although Camu Tao had recorded albums with other artists (including S.A. Smash, Nighthawks, and Central Services), the recently released King of Hearts (or Death, Where Have You Been All My Life? as it was titled at the time of his death) was to be his long awaited solo debut. Signed to the Def Jux label, the album would not have been released had Def Jux's main manEl-P (also his partner in Central Services) not gone ahead and released it in its current, raw sounding form via Fat Possum Records, since Def Jux isn't putting out records right now (even El-P's own recent solo WeAreAllGoingToBurnInHellMegamixxx3 was released on Gold Dust Media).
Camu Tao "Death" (Fat Possum/Def Jux 2010)
King of Hearts is a really good album but by no means is it a hip-hop album, and even former fans of the alternative hip-hop circles that Tao worked in (including Ohio's MHz crew, Weathermen, & the Cardboard City collective) couldn't get into it. As one recent online comment succinctly summed up: "A lot of people been hatin' on this album." Those haters no doubt would be the disappointed hip-hop fans who, much like the disgusted Bob Dylan folk fans who hated him going electric, balked at the fact that the artist sings his way through most of the 16 track rock sounding album. In fact, it isn't until CD track number 10 (the title track) that he raps at all. The lesson here is don't judge someone by their past work or their musical affiliations; rather, listen to the music for itself. Unfortunately, since he didn't live to record a follow up, we will never know if this was merely a temporary detour from hip-hop or not.
King of Hearts is at times like listening to some tight but raw-sounding Prince demo tapes. At other times its electro channeled punk rock and glam rock sound as if it were a mutated Marc Bolan led T-Rex outtake from the early 70's. In fact, if you had no idea who the artist was or when it was recorded, you might guess that it was a late 70's/early 80's post punk recording. Not surprisingly then, one of the album's standout tracks is "Fonny Valentine," which is an inspired reworking of Elvis Costello's 1979 recording "My Funny Valentine" (itself an update of the Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart standard).
The album, which is nearly all self produced by the artist, is mostly lo-fi sounding (a major part of its appeal to these ears), to the point of sounding like rough demo recordings. But this, according to several statements made by El-P, was a deliberate move to keep the essence of what was recorded and to present it as such, and not mess it up by trying to transform it into falsely glossy something. Like J-Dilla and countless others, we can add Camu Tao's name to a long list of hip-hop era artists whose lives ended way too early and long before they got to reach their creative primes.
If you would like to support the family of Camu Tao (Teru Smith) and his fiance, in addition to buying his CD, you can buy a Camu Tao Memorial T-shirt, with all the proceeds going directly to the late artist's family and fiance left behind.