ince day one, Camp Lo have always been Hollywood. Their technicolor tales could only fit on the big screen: blaxploitation fantasies of bloody Bronx shoot-outs, slick diamond heists and jet-black getaway cars gunning it 100 miles per on the Bronx Expressway, plane to Aruba waiting at Teterboro. All matinee style: swaggering in fly panama hats, Oscar Gamble afros, and floor-length minks. And, of course, the finest weed, wine, and women stolen money could buy.
Speaking with Byzantine slang, the duo of Chiba and Suede dropped a classic on their first try, 1997’s Uptown Saturday Night, a record that seemed to herald the emergence of a classic hip-hop duo. What rises in the first act, though, falls in the second, and Lo fell as hard as anyone, with label woes causing them to basically vanish for a decade. In fact, until last year’s Fort Apache Mixtape, Lo were more likely to appear on Nas’s “Where Are They Now ‘90s Remix” than they were to drop an album, let alone a good one.
Black Hollywood is that album. Just 35 minutes start to finish, it wastes no time in proving its case, commencing with “My Posse from the Bronx,” a Ski-produced banger full of nervous stuttering hand claps and a “My Philosophy” sample. Like champion middleweights, Cheeba and Suede bob and weave, jabbing the beat with perfect rhythm. The tone of the record is clear from the first bars, with Lo still spitting subterranean Bronx tales full of frantic car chases, stolen drugs, and Rugers to shatter spines. In the hands of lesser lyricists and less colorful personalities, the gun and drug talk would seem hopelessly tired, but with Lo, it’s never really been what they rapped about, it’s the way in which they did it
Each track is a different scene in Lo’s seamy netherworld myth: “82 Afros” finds the pair embroiled in a dice game shootout, while “Sugar Willie’s Revenge” sees the pair painting the portrait of a “Dirty Harry carrying” pimp named Sugar Willie. “Ganja Lounge” is that moment in the movies when the store-owner flips a switch, the walls revolve and suddenly you’re transporting into the redolent haze and dim lights of a plush drug den.
Two tracks in particular form the record’s emotional core and make it more than just a paean to the spoils of crime: “Jack and Jill,” a cautionary tale that pays homage to Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story,” and “Sweet Claudine,” a love song to a woman recently jilted by the father of her children. Wise enough to know which clichés to avoid, Lo’s rare glimpse of sentimentality imbues the album with a degree of depth and three-dimensionality often lacking in contemporary hip-hop.
Sure, the album has a few flaws. Roughly half the tracks appeared on a little heard mixtape the pair released last year. Several beats are just OK. And with the exception of maybe “My Posse from the Bronx,” nothing stands up to “Luchini,” “Black Nostaljack,” or “Cooley High,” the holy trinity of Uptown Saturday Night singles. But, then again, the sequel is never as good as the original, and while it may not be the second classic Camp Lo album, Black Hollywood marks a satisfying return. Cheeba and Suede’s Hollywood production might not be about to shove anything off any AFI’s greatest of all-time list, but in a weak year for hip-hop it certainly deserves an Oscar nomination or two.