Asylum / Warner
f you spend any time at all reading music blogs, you’ve probably already been told by more people than you ever needed to hear it from that Cam’ron’s 2004 album Purple Haze was a classic, an absurdist thug-rap masterpiece and the best mainstream hip-hop album in years. Bloggers and indie critics spent last year piling on top of each other to win the prize for the most absurd comparison—Cam’ron is gangsta rap’s Gertrude Stein! He’s a hip-hop James Joyce!—like they were pouncing to catch the bouquet. If you initially ducked out of the way of the mounting superlatives to avoid being sprayed with fanboy spittle, it’s worth going back to the record now; the album still sounds great. Cam took his fondness for internal rhyme to new extremes, and the production mixed a couple of certified Kanye West bangers with a smorgasbord of tracks from mostly unknown NYC producers, which resulted in some big misses (hello, Cyndi Lauper sample!) as well as left-field hits, like the screaming hair-metal guitars and disembodied reggae vocals of “Bubble Music.” The record transformed Cam from a respectable Harlem MC punching middleweight in sales to a revered cult figure—who still punched middleweight in sales. Go buy it.
The new one, Killa Season, won’t incite the same frenzy—it’s too insular, too weird, and lacks a hit single—and it’s possible that the crowd of hipsters who hoisted him on their shoulders after “Purple Haze” will summarily drop him and look for something else to do, which is a shame. The album’s Achilles Heel is its production. Cam’ron forswore any big-name producers for this record, relying instead on a lot of the same regional producers who contributed to Purple Haze. This could have come off as courageous if the record sounded exciting or unique, but it sounds recorded in a Harlem basement; no bass, all high treble leaking feebly out of the speakers, and the tracks wade deep in the mawkish Lite FM rock that the Dips have an unfortunate weakness for. On “Girls, Cash, Cars,” Cam rhymes over a sample taken from a Rick Wakeman (of Yes) solo instrumental record about the court of King Arthur; the backing track for “You Gotta Love It,” Cam’s halfhearted swipe at Jay-Z, is an orchestral snippet taken from the Basic Instinct original soundtrack; and “He Tried to Play Me” is built from what sounds suspiciously like a Bruce Hornsby and the Range sample. There are no Kanye beats, no Just Blaze, and only one Heatmakerz joint (the duo that used to function as the Dips’ unofficial house producers).
Cam’s unwillingness to bring in outsiders extends to guest MCs: The only appearance of a rapper outside the Diplomat camp is Lil’ Wayne, who drops a playfully glib verse typical of his recent winning streak on “Suck it or Not,” full of sniggering wordplay (“Vanilla ice cream, she say ‘ooh, my favorite’ / Do you know who you playin’ with / Wayne / Chillin’ like a scarecrow, lookin’ for some brain.”). Cam doesn’t even give much airtime to his right-hand man Juelz Santana, who was all over his last two records and could have brought some of the buzz he scored last year from a couple of modest mainstream hits. Instead, we get Dipset third-stringers Hell Rell and 40 Cal, who bring hungry mixtape-rapper grit, but don’t drop any memorable rhymes.
Cam’ron’s hypnotic flow, meanwhile, is still an extravagantly ridiculous wonder, and almost makes the album worth the price of admission. Riding humid blaxploitation strings on “We Make Change,” he litters the track with smirking, perfect punch lines: “I’m official nice / Y’all niggas Fisher Price,”; “Lemme slow it up / So y’all can cope and touch / I’m heroin and sex all in one / Dope as fuck.” His obsession with vowel sounds still turns conventional thug talk mesmerizing and incantatory. When he finds a couple he likes—“dollar and a dream,” to take just a single example—he chases them maniacally to the ends of the Earth—“collard on your greens,” “Prada on your jeans” “not from the regime,” “popular with fiends,” “crouched up in a lean,” “dropped it on the Beam”—until they tremble and threaten to break into nonsense. Every once in awhile, straightforwardly frank admissions coalesce out of the gibberish with startling clarity, as if you had suddenly tuned into a radio station after only getting static: “My mom’s still gettin’ high / She so damn gifted / Like she got no legs though, she can’t kick it.”
Then of course, there is “I.B.S,” maybe the weirdest, most personal rap narrative ever. Over a handful of notes plinked out at the high end of the piano and looped endlessly, Cam’ron takes the autobiographical story-rap straight into Jewish-mother territory, relating his lifelong struggles with I.B.S.—as Cam helpfully clarifies, “That’s Irritable Bowel, child.” “Ulcers hurt my salary / Altered my personality,” he admits, detailing the embarrassment of throwing up in public and the indignity of doctors blaming his weight loss on dope addiction. He adds, “Besides that, though, I can’t enjoy no movie dinner / My son growin’ up / I’m looking like the movie Thinner.” Both cringe-inducing and oddly affecting, “I.B.S.” is probably the first song since Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “Constipation Blues” to wring such pathos from indigestion.
Such quirks confirm Cam’s uniqueness; if he would wander out of Dipset land long enough and engage with the outside world, he could make another classic. But as his recent, uninspiring attempt at starting beef Jay-Z showed, Cam is most comfortable in his self-designed world, where he can stay a legend in his own mind, where his supremacy goes unchallenged. This record shows him reaffirming his self-mythology, turning the failed carjacking he survived last year into a clash of the titans, rhyming over the absurdly portentous, booming chorus of “Carmina Burana.” This album was the moment for him to step out into the big leagues; to spend money on some epic beats, to get guest spots from other hot rappers like T.I. or Young Jeezy; to ride his groundswell of hype to hip-hop heavyweight status. Instead, Killa Season is a retreat, an album to satisfy the converted but one that will keep his mythical status confined to the 12-mile radius of his Manhattan home.