The Microsoft Center was lit when Fat Joe, Remy Ma and French Montana hit the stage to perform “All the Way Up.” It’s been six years since Fat Joe last dropped an album and he returned with a single that has young heads and OGs alike showing love like he’s a new artist (Even Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t contain his enthusiasm for the hit track). But Fat Joe’s ability to step away and come back runs deeper than just this latest smash.
When “All the Way Up” bumrushed the airwaves this spring, some of the song’s fans probably didn’t even realize that Fat Joe has been in the game for longer than many of them have been alive. His weight has fluctuated, his sound has changed and he’s lost some loved ones, but the Bronx-born spitter has somehow managed to keep his flow and image fresh after nearly a quarter century.
Staying hot after turning 40 years old is a milestone few emcees are fortunate enough to enjoy, but Fat Joe has zero time to focus on that. His concern as always is coming up with the next hit. And with that, we look back at Fat Joe’s unique path from his days as Fat Joe Da Gangsta ’til he was “All the Way Up.”
In 1993, as Heavy D was starting to cool down and before hip-hop was properly introduced to the Notorious B.I.G.’s seminal Ready to Die album, Relativity Records’ new artist Fat Joe (then known as “Fat Joe Da Gangsta”) slid in and filled that “big guy” void with his debut single “Flow Joe,” an East Coast lyrical assault. While popular with the underground, the single from that album never reached higher than No. 82 on the Billboard albums chart. Joe followed that up with “Watch the Sound” and later “The S**t Is Real,” solidifying his buzz as a new cat to watch out for.
Two years later, the Puerto Rican rhymer dropped one of his signature albums, Jealous One’s Envy, led off by the singles “Success” and “Envy.” Perhaps the most notable song on the album was “Watch Out,” a dark, string laden track that featured “Armageddon, Keith Nut and introduced the world to a rapper they would know simply as Big Pun.
After a three-year gap in albums, Joe came back strong with a new label home (Terror Squad/Atlantic) and a new album Don Cartagena, his most commercially successful album at the time, debuting at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, led by the first single and title track “Don Cartagena,” which featured the hottest executive-turned-rapper-executive Puff Daddy. Joe then released his first single geared toward the ladies, “Bet Ya Man Can’t (Triz),” broadening his appeal in the pop realm and also introducing the world to Terror Squad (which featured Big Pun, Armageddon, Prospect, Cuban Link, Prospect and Joey himself).
After his popularity reached even greater heights with Terror Squad’s self-titled debut album, 2001’s Jealous One’s Still Envy was another significant step toward mainstream success for Fat Joe, though critics gave the album mixed reviews. (HipHopDX gave the album a 2 out of 5 while VIBE awarded it 4 out of 5). From a commercial standpoint, the album was a success, shipping platinum. Like the album itself, the singles “We Thuggin’” featuring R. Kelly and “What’s Luv” featuring Ashanti were a notable departure from the predominantly gritty New York sound that earned him his reputation in the underground. Kellz and Ashanti were two of the most pop-friendly artists that year. Joe also dropped an early lyrical duet with Remy Ma with “Opposites Attract (What They Like)”
One of the biggest singles of Fat Joe’s career came on the second Terror Squad Album True Story. “Lean Back” was produced by Scott Storch when he was at his height and was bumping in clubs and on the airwaves for the entirety of the year. He also enjoyed hometown hero status by joining Ja Rule on his “New York” anthem, which broke the Top 30 on Billboard. Riding that wave Joe returned in 2005 with All or Nothing. The first single “So Much More” saw Joe returning to his earlier street sound. Joey Crack followed that up with the infectious Nelly-assisted “Get It Poppin,’” which took his top 40 swag to an even higher level.
A year later in 2006, Joe switched it up with a new label (Virgin) and a new album Me, Myself & I. While the album as a whole was notably less feature heavy, the sole single “Make It Rain” featuring Lil Wayne and produced by Scott Storch was a huge hit and even yielded a remix which featured T.I., Rick Ross, Ace Mac R. Kelly and Birdman, both versions were among the biggest songs of the year.
Joe had already seen valleys and peaks but his swag never dipped, which was most evident on 2007’s The Elephant in the Room, one of the most critically acclaimed albums of his career. Commercially, TEITR held its own as well, debuting at No. 6 on the Billboard 200. The first album's single, the mellow “I Won’t Tell” featured J. Holiday on the hook and the boastful Cool & Dre-produced banger “Ain’t Sayin’ Nothin’” featuring Plies.
The Boricua boss never stayed down for too long and went full hip-hop noir with the self-explanatory The Darkside Vol. 1. It saw a significant chart improvement, debuting at No. 13 and even more impressive, it did so independently as Joe switched teams from Virgin to E1 Entertainment. On the singles tip, Joe came out strong with hood smash “Haha Slow Down,” featuring Diddy and Young Jeezy. and kept it gangsta on the follow up “If It Ain’t About Money” with Trey Songz holding down the chorus.
Despite a long absence, 2016 looks like it’s Fat Joe’s year. Along with his partner in rhyme Remy Ma (who famously did a bit of time of her own), it looks like "All the Way Up" might be the song of the year. Joe and Remy have been a team for more than 15 years. They’ve gone through good and tumultuous times personally, but if there’s anything that the success of this song and the heat behind both of them right now has shown, it’s the actuality of karma and the importance of being adaptable.
Fat Joe has always changed with the times. He’s never hated on hip-hop as a culture of the MCs that came after him. He was able to keep his credibility even while making a swift run at pop radio. He never lost the streets and he always stayed honest and unapologetic about who he was. So now that he’s all the way up again, just know that behind that song is a brand built on adaptability.
(Photo: Kevin Winter/BET/Getty Images for BET)