The aughts were, for the most part, unkind years to one Joe Cartagena a/k/a Fat Joe. They began with the death of friend and partner-in-rhyme Big Pun, and continued with middling album releases mired by increasingly poor lyricism and production. As the decade wore on, Joey Crack’s star began to lose its luster, both as a commercially and critically viable artist.

So, after being kicked around the previous decade – even if self-induced – it’s fitting that Don Cartagena turns to the “dark side” at the start of this one. The Darkside Vol. 1 has Fat Joe with a fire in his sizable belly, reestablishing his place as a dominant force in Rap.

The album’s intro fits the “dark side” aesthetic to a tee with its epic choir notes, stabbing synths and heavy percussion. Proclaiming “We’ll throw the biggest party when Curtis die,” it becomes immediately apparent that Fat Joe isn’t here to take prisoners. The sentiment carries over into “Valley of Death,” which carries with it a heavy, triumphant bounce courtesy of Cool & Dre. Just Blaze picks up where 2005’s “Safe 2 Say” left off, continuing his impressive streak alongside Fat Joe on “I Am Crack” . The track has Fat Joe speaking as the Reaganomics narcotic in the first person, over cymbals, rolling drums, bass licks and off-kilter keys. Although Juelz Santana has done it before, Joe does it best. In character, Joe thumps his chest for tearing apart families and says, “It’s Crack, baby, minus the incubators.” There is a darkside.

“Kilo” , featuring Clipse and Cam’ron, looks like a winner on the surface, but upon closer inspection is a bit of a disappointment. First, the track flips the same sample as Ghostface Killah’s 2006 song of the same name – to lesser effect. Despite this, the track is a banger for sure; but while Joe and Cam’ron come through with their verses, one can’t help but feel shortchanged by Clipse’s performance. It’s becoming tiresome to hear the Brothers Thornton pray for forgiveness on every other song (the “tortured hustler” shtick belongs in 1996), as well as their insistence on recycling the flows and intonations they’ve leaned on for the last few years.

Fat Joe displays an impressive ear for beats with “(Ha Ha) Slow Down” and “If It Ain’t About Money” . The former is almost like Fat Joe’s version of “New Wu,” crafted by Scoop DeVille and featuring fellow fish-scale connoisseur Young Jeezy, whereas the latter is Cool & Dre’s take on a grimier “A Millie.” The aforementioned comparisons are favorable ones, as Joe’s versions have the elements that made their counterparts great, while simultaneously allowing Crack to make them his own.

Darkside soars to even greater heights with an outstanding Too Short feature on “Money Over Bitches,” but stumbles with “Heavenly Father” , which inexplicably samples Lil Wayne’s “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” prayer from his 2007 song, “Pray to the Lord.” One has to wonder, though, if the line “everyone done being something they can’t be” isn’t aimed at Joe himself.

All is forgiven and forgotten, however, when the beauty that is “I’m Gone” graces the listener’s ears. The ever-reliable DJ Premier laces Fat Joe with what may just be among the Bronx rapper’s greatest solo joints. Preme offers a slow-and-simple piano and violin loop, dripping with the pain of just having lost Guru – and Joey doesn’t waste the effort brought forth by the unique circumstances one bit: “Premo on the beat, yeah I know it sounds different / But his mans just passed, his soul’s just risen / Cold, cold, world is the word that was given / As he see me fifteen with the burner out of prison / Gangster – fuck that, I’m Gang Starr/ Tell Nas Hip Hop’s dead now, my man’s gone / As I rise to the top, knee-deep in the game I survive every shot / Back to life like Thriller, back to reality / Flipped the light scoop, got everyone mad at me /…I’m hungry, nigga, I’ll eat your flesh / I’ma butcher, chainsaw through your spleen and chest /…Joe Crack, yeah man on fire / Conversate with the devil, rockin’ diamond messiahs.” Simply put, this may be the performance of Fat Joe’s career, which he fittingly closes out “My 1st Song” style – with a bevy of shout outs and memories.

Aside from the miserable decision to not make “I’m Gone” the album’s final cut, there’s little else to complain about on Darkside Vol 1. This is easily Fat Joe’s best-produced album in over a decade – but that isn’t the key to this album’s success. For whatever reason, Joe believed for years that he needed to “switch it up to south paw” to survive, but here he’s returned to his D.I.T.C.-minded roots in a big way. Hardcore lyricism backed by the conviction that has been lacking since the ’90s give this project heart. Who knows where Fat Joe’s musical whims will take him, but for now, it feels like it’ll be a cold day in hell the day he’ll take an L.

Purchase The Darkside Vol. 1 by Fat Joe