The most famous photo of Joe Budden on the internet is a picture of him screaming so furiously the camera appears to be shaking. Or, maybe it’s the one where he’s scowling at the camera in bemusement. Or the one where he’s walking away from the Migos. Whatever the winner is, one thing is for certain: Joe is not smiling.

But on Sunday night (July 22) in San Francisco, Joe was all smiles. Hysterical, beaming, exuberant smiles. Joe and his cohorts, Rory, Mal and Parks were wrapping up the second, sold-out leg of their Joe Budden Podcast Tour and he held court for over two joyful hours. Joe was about as far away as he could get in the United States from his New Jersey roots, but after being showered with love all night, he must have felt right at home.

Less than two years ago on Joe’s last trip to the Bay Area during his final tour as a rapper, he rocked the intimate club New Parish in neighboring Oakland. He drew a crowd of less than 100 people, a group so small the venue didn’t even bother to open up their balcony seating. On Sunday, over 500 people filled the historical Marines’ Memorial Theater in downtown San Francisco just to see Joe and his friends sit on a couch and talk.

It has all been quite the turnaround.

Joe’s career started off about as promising as could be. His debut single “Pump It Up” was a hit and nominated for a Grammy. The song’s success propelled his self-titled debut album into a Top 10 Billboard debut. He seemed poised for a long, successful mainstream career. Label strife halted his progress, and the commercial success his career began with eluded him over the next decade-plus. Joe never released another Top 40 single, or another Top 10 solo album.

But what he did do as he regrouped was capitalize, releasing a series of legendary, critically-acclaimed mixtapes, solidifying his reputation as one of the best emcees in the game. He titled them Mood Muzik and, throughout the quartet of mixtapes, Joe seemed to take every single skeleton out of his closet and place it right in the listeners faces, even if agonizingly so. No topic was off-limits, as he discussed his plight as a father, his relationship woes, depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and more. While toiling away in the relative anonymity of the underground, Joe made himself more accessible than ever, turning his private life into public fodder. At least for those who were listening.

His incredibly revealing and resonant music added additional layers to what the public knew, and Budden seemingly erased all privacy he’d once enjoyed. Soon, the transparency backfired, and after abuse allegations piled up, a reputation formed. To some, Joe was a batterer and an absentee father, and that was his demise. His sincere candidness made him a relatable hero to some, and a despicable villain to others, no matter how revered he’d become for his lyrical potency. Years after his popularity peaked, Joe went from a star to a punchline, from famous to infamous.

But a few years ago, things started turning around. Hilarious turns on reality TV made him an entertaining character for a new set of fans. His final album, Rage & The Machine, was a jubilant celebration of life and examination of time. Joe seemed renewed, reborn and rebranded. He’d reconciled with his son, and the darker hues of his previous works were replaced by vibrant, vivid tones. For the fans he’d won over previously, the growth was obvious, and the connection he’d built with them made them happy for all of the newfound delight he was displaying at every moment.

Soon after Rage & The Machine, Joe retired from rapping and began slowly becoming one of the most respected voices in all of hip-hop. His time on Everyday Struggle, as the older, wiser foil to the new school’s megaphone-welding mouthpiece DJ Akademiks helped solidify his new reputation as a rap sage, and a force to be reckoned with. Suddenly, Joe was winning people over, if not for his music, then for his passionate personality and his provocative and insightful commentary on the culture. A cheerful, public relationship with model Cyn Santana added another layer, and when they welcomed a son, Lexington, Joe suddenly filled the role of a doting family man. In a year he’d become the prototype for how to successfully retire in rap and flourish in retirement.

But the platform that most accurately depicted Joe’s transformation was the podcast that carries his name. It’s there that Joe lets loose, accosts about the culture and gets to be happy, engaging and endearing. Joe cares about hip-hop’s virtues and the current flag-bearers alike, and it shines through on his podcast. There, he’s just as likely to rant about old school traditions as he is the artistic acumen of someone like 6ix9ine. He may dig into the newest song from Teyana Taylor that he’s enjoying, or analyze a new Drake track for all of the subliminal disses towards Kanye West with the expertise of the sleuths from the KanyeToThe forums. On his podcast, Joe seems to be the most informed, opinionated and balanced voice in hip-hop and now, thanks to all of the show’s success (it currently sits at No. 4 on iTunes music podcasts chart, and occupies four of the spots in the Top 20 episodes as well), the loudest as well.

Joe’s journey to nearly universal adoration is the culmination of years of cultivating his fanbase, and the personal connection he’d built with them. In the new era of transparency that has even Beyoncé and JAY-Z revealing their deepest darkest secrets, Joe has long been a master in the art of revelations. Deep dark secrets have been Joe’s forte since his debut, everything going on now is just par the course for him. Now, he’s reaping the benefits of all that transparency, and all of those rough edges that made him an outcast all those years ago. Now, Joe’s authenticity—flaws, mistakes and all—has made him the star his music never quite did.

In San Francisco, the final discussion of the night centered around the best rebrands in hip-hop. Like most conversations on the podcast, the dialogue splayed in every which direction. One person suggested that Ludacris’ rebrand should be on the list, another confused Robert Downey, Jr. with Charlie Sheen as they marveled at the work various celebrities did to repair their images. Joe’s name is casually tossed into the conversation and quickly glossed over, but at this point he may top the list. From alleged abuser, one-hit wonder, rap flameout, deadbeat father and overall failure to one of the biggest and most revered names and voices in hip-hop culture. With all of the smiling, laughing, dancing, celebrating and euphoric jumping around he did on stage, it seems he’s enjoying the success he’s achieved. Always emotional, and always known to wear his emotions on his sleeve, the emotions are finally joyous.

Years ago, Joe dubbed himself “Regular Joe,” it seems only now is the audience ready to not only accept but celebrate that normalcy. Suddenly, regular is the new extraordinary, and Joe fits right in.

Look out for ‘State of the Culture,’ only on REVOLT TV, coming soon.

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