Status Ain't Hood

How Is Cam’ron Still This Good?

There are moments in music where everything lines up perfectly, where the pieces are all in place for something great to happen. Sometimes, you don’t even recognize those moments until they’re over. But 15 years ago, we knew. In the final days of 2004, Cam’ron was part of Roc-A-Fella, the dominant empire in rap music, but he was free to operate his own little fiefdom within that system. Cam had the Diplomats crew, a team of cartoonish hustlers and scamps who started referring to themselves as the Taliban before the rubble had even been cleared from Ground Zero. Cam had actual hits within recent memory; “Oh Boy” and “Hey Ma,” both from previous album Come Home With Me, had each gone top-five. Cam had a whole cottage industry of mixtapes back when mixtapes were still actual physical CDs that you had to buy from corner bootleggers, and back before anyone else knew what kind of buzz those things could generate.

And Cam had confidence. He was a great rapper who had come to understand his own greatness. He was making absurdist fashion statements — stepping out in Pepto-Bismol pink furs, with everything matching. He was crafting ridiculous punchlines and eloquently ignorant street-life boasts. He had everything working for him. He almost couldn’t help but make something great. Purple Haze was that something great.

Purple Haze is a miracle of an album — a sprawling hour-plus of shit-talk that never equivocates, never compromises, and never aims for anything less than total knucklehead transcendence. Throughout, Cam remains a hilarious goon. He holds it all together through merciless, guttural, knowingly ridiculous shit-talk, never even attempting to present himself as a morally upright young man. (This famously frustrated Bill O’Reilly to no end.) Purple Haze came out in an era when rap stars were expected to make radio songs, to triangulate their sounds for the widest possible audiences. But Cam did not play the Nelly game. Instead, he trusted his own princely charisma and his writerly grace to carry him. It worked.

Purple Haze was not a hit. It debuted at #20, and none of its singles went anywhere. It eventually went gold — solid but not great for someone who had the potential to reach rap’s upper echelon during those final days of the CD era. But Purple Haze immediately became the kind of album that certain fans memorize and internalize, the type where certain lines will just pop suddenly up in your head with no explanation a decade-plus later. Cam had the computers puting. He was drinking sake on a Suzuki in Osaka Bay. He parked in a tow-away zone. He didn’t care; that car was a throwaway, homes. You had pets? Him too. His were dead. Purple Haze mattered to kids too fortunate to know much about the life that Cam rapped about. I know this because I was one of them. (I reviewed the fucking thing for Pitchfork.) (Don’t read that.)

The conditions that made Purple Haze possible unraveled at the exact moment that Purple Haze hit stores. Roc-A-Fella Records fractured as Jay-Z fell out with his old co-conspirators Dame Dash and Biggs Burke. Cam became a free agent, and he and his Diplomats had to be content with being New York cult heroes, their moment of pop glory essentially over. For the next few years, Cam continued to talk his shit, but he wasn’t doing it from the top of the mountain anymore. He got into noisy but unsatisfying feuds with Jay-Z and 50 Cent. The Diplomats eventually splintered themselves, then later reunited to hit the nostalgia circuit. They put out an album about a year ago. It was pretty good. Then Juelz Santana went to prison on a gun charge, and now that reunion is on hold.

So I wasn’t excited about the prospect of a new Cam’ron album called Purple Haze 2. We’ve seen things like this again and again: Faded, aging rappers calling back to old glories, putting out new records that sound, at best, like distant echoes. As someone with a sentimental attachment to that first Purple Haze, I didn’t want to see Cam go out like that. I put off listening to the sequel for way too long. But I should’ve had faith. The Cam’ron of right now is nothing like the one who made that first Purple Haze. But he can still rap. He can rap better than I would’ve thought possible.

Purple Haze 2 is unmistakably an old-man rap album. Cam raps over a Mary Jane Girls sample, interpolates the old Ray Charles Diet Coke jingle, slides a couple of In Living Color references into a verse-long joke about refusing to have sex with a woman who has a yeast infection. Many of the tracks come from the Heatmakerz, Cam’s favored producers of many years ago. And even when they aren’t involved, the tracks sound like Heatmakerz tracks: Pitch-shifted and obvious samples, thunderous drum-lopes, a whole lot of pianos. Cam does absolutely nothing to keep up with present-day rap trends; the Wale guest verse is the one thing that could even remotely be considered an update.

But Purple Haze 2 is great because Cam makes the old-man thing work for him. There’s a whole lot of storytelling on the album, all about Cam’s past lives. There’s a nightclub confrontation with Suge Knight where knives come out. There’s a moment where Cam has to save Stephon Marbury from getting robbed on the playground. There’s that not-unfunny yeast infection bit.

In my favorite of those stories, a teenage Cam wants to buy a washing machine for his grandmother. The local drug dealers won’t let Cam sell for them, since they know he might have a future playing basketball. So Cam and a friend rob a couple — apologizing to them as they do it — and Cam gifts that Whirlpool to his suspicious, worried nana: “She was happy, but listen, she ain’t no dumdum / ‘Where the money for this washer and dryer come from?’ / ‘Won it playing basketball, man, got a lump sum’ / Gave her a kiss and a hug, that’s where I come from.”

That anecdote comes from “Losing Weight 3,” the best Cam’ron song in many years and the one thing on Purple Haze 2 good enough that it could’ve fit just fine on the first Purple Haze. Cam, warm and bittersweet, goes into deep reflection over a loping acoustic bassline and a tinkly piano, no drums at all. It’s weirdly beautiful in the way that only a Cam’ron song can be weirdly beautiful.

The rest of Purple Haze 2 is just as full of the things that have always made Cam great. There’s the disrespectful money-talk: “Waiting to bid up on your house when it foreclose / Moving in? Nah, I’m using it for wardrobe.” There are the unexpected pop-culture punchlines: “If you selling bundles, bundle up; it’s getting cold / Me? I got keys — piano man, Billy Joel.” There’s the oblique, bemusing way with words: “Moving pharmaceutical through the streets, well, it’s suitable / Dirt from 1997 still inside my cuticles,” “I came up on a hard block, fiends sniffing like aardvarks / In our park is murderers, drug dealers, and card sharks.” (Aardvarks! Amazing.)

There’s street-corner narration, where Cam describes both the absurdity of the circumstances that birthed him and his own innate understanding of that absurdity: “My block ain’t have no jokers like the city of Gotham / Niggas got mugged and hung out with the niggas who robbed ‘em / Niggas giving five to the same niggas who shot ‘em / I was so confused, like ‘What the fuck am I watching?’” There are the moments where Cam’ron, in a couple of swift strokes, does what he can to justify a life full of consumption: “Outside, more gunshots than Commando / That’s why I had to treat myself to Porsches, Lambos.” And there are the moments where Cam feels tempted to go back to that life, no matter how comfortable he may be now: “They want me back, in Juarez they waiting / I look at the phone, debating / Please leave me alone, Satan.”

But what will stick with me is the faraway warmth in Cam’s voice on “Losing Weight 3.” It’s a 43-year-old Cam getting stuck on his own stickup-kid past. In the way he delivers those lines, you can hear nostalgia, regret, survivor’s guilt, disbelief at his own luck and stupidity, and straight-up love for his grandmother. Once upon a time, one of Cam’s great assets was his ability to strip all traces of emotion from his voice. He didn’t give a fuck about anything, and he was laughing at you if you did. Now, 15 years later, Cam does give a fuck, in a twinkle-in-the-eye sort of way. And he’s still better at conveying what’s going on in his mind than almost any of his peers. Purple Haze 2 is not a classic rap album like its predecessor. It can’t be. The circumstances aren’t right for it. But it’s closer than I could’ve ever imagined. I had to get the computers puting about it.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. BlocBoy JB, Hoodrich Pablo Juan, & Sada Baby – “Trap Neva Closed”
Sada Baby dumped this bitch at the task force. He alley-ooped this bitch off the glass.

2. Sada Baby – “Akd 5v5 Ted”
Pull up on Sada Baby, get your ass decapitated. He ain’t worried about no body or retaliation.

3. Fmb Dz – “DrippleDragons” (Feat. Sada Baby)
Sada Baby fucked your baby mama, woke the kids up.

4. Sada Baby – “Bobby Bouscher”
Sada Baby shoots shit like PG-13 on OKC, then does the Pee Wee Herman. He sips lean; he’s swerving. He got a new Ruger from Germany.

5. Lil Yachty & Sada Baby – “SB5″

Bitch, Sada Baby is a lover and a fighter. He keeps two sticks on him like Stryder. Point is: I need you to understand what’s happening with Sada Baby right now. He is going nuts. He is monstering out. On New Years Day, Sada Baby released the new mixtape Brolik — only on DatPiff, not on the regular streaming services. It’s the first (and, thus far, only) great rap album of 2020. All of the song’s in this week’s Furious Five are from the past few weeks. None of them are from that mixtape. Sada Baby has perfect verses just falling out of his pants pockets and getting lost in his couch right now. He’s probably recording a perfect verse this second, as you read this.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO

Tags: Cam'Ron