Tuesday, June 23, 2009

When Cam Could Still Rap (Friendship)

Back when 'It's Goin' Down' was all the rage, my sister and I used to find Nitti's intro the funniest thing and repeat it in the car ad nauseam, for somewhat obscure reasons. I think, though, that it had something to do with the very proprietary sense you get about their relationship in that intro, coupled with the impression Nitti gives that they're practically strangers ("I want to introduce you to another motherfucker out my squad... this nigga goes by the name of Joc (Joc??)... he resides in College Park, right?"). And surely enough, by just the next year they weren't speaking anymore over money issues, though apparently that's been resolved. The art of what I'll call, for lack of a decent term, the plug in rap (not plug-in rap, the plug, full stop, in rap), whether done by a mixtape DJ, a producer, a label owner, or a superior artist, is something that hasn't been given much if any sustained analysis in rap blogland. Yet a plug can set the tone for and totally alter a record. As practiced by the Nittis and Diddys of the world, a plug can devalue a record, make it seem like a coldly calculated piece of product we shouldn't bother caring about (though this is mitigated at times in Diddy's case by his seemingly very sincere conviction in the excellence of whatever crappy artist he's pushing at the moment - but then that too is canceled out by the sense that he's bullshitting us, whether willfully or whether he deludes himself into thinking that, say, Loon is good so he can fool us next). In the case of, say, Baby on old Wayne or B.G. records, one's enjoyment of jeune Wayne/prime B.G. is reduced quite a bit by the reminder that we're witnessing a sickeningly exploitative, both financially and sexually, homo-pedophiliac jumpoff. (Pure speculation about the sexual part but I wouldn't at all be surprised if this was the reason Baby signed so many kids and adopted at least one, that and they're easier to cheat.) In the case of Jay plugs on Bleek records, at first there's something touching about Jay's belief in the guy, but by the point of 'Dear Summer' getting thrown on 534 and Jay's kind offer to leave a little something for Bleek in his will, or even the fact that a 534 existed at all, one started to get a queasy feeling that Jay enjoyed making a public spectacle of Bleek's total dependence on him. But then there are plugs that can elevate the most pedestrian record into something quite special, either simply by the charismatic authority of the co-sign, or, more interestingly, by a performance of the friendship between plugger and pluggee. As is the case with so many of the small things that go into making great rap, here Cam was a master.

A. Basic Plugs

Cam's work is littered with some of the best rapping you'll ever hear about friendship, and perhaps that will be the subject of a separate post. (To give one example, consider Freeky Zeek, who becomes an almost mythic figure just by Cam's talking about him so much.) But today we're just going to be talking about Cam's plugs for artists on their own shit. Some are very simple, though none the less effective; one of my favorites is on 'Stop-N-Go,' where JR Writer's handed probably one of the most memorable introductions to a career in rap of all time. (Technically he first shows up on Juelz's debut album a year prior, but who cares.) Cam, after affectionately running down a list of the artists on his roster, with little terms of endearment for each, announces, in what sounds like the voice of God, if God were a Diplomat, "the Writer of Writers - JR" to the world, and without missing a beat JR springs to life, as if he were some internal rhyming monster Cam cooked up in his basement. And thus the short-lived legend of JR Writer was born, through no small help from Cam. Not sure there's anything half as captivating or razor-sharp on Crime Pays as those two seconds. A slightly more complicated version of this dynamic is Cam's fabulous cheerleading on Juelz's first single, 'Santana's Town,' a song that's structured around Cam's voice (he starts it, he ends it, he does the hook) and is terribly convincing as an announcement of the arrival of Juelz as Next Big Thing, except, of course, when Juelz is rapping. When Cam says at the end that "that boy got that crack," you really believe it. You can't build, alas, a whole song around this sort of thing (although see below), but in a way Cam's talent for braggadocio is most appealing when he's using it to brag about others. Of all the Cam phrases that stick in my head as I go about my daily life, perhaps my favorite is at the end of his second verse on 'Bout It Bout It Pt. 3":

Pies get eight done, Dipset don't play none,
Jim Jones, Freeky, Killa and The Great One - Santana

Here and elsewhere, Cam has a talent for mythologizing that's totally persuasive even as you know it's total nonsense.

B. Performing Friendship

Far more interesting than Cam's simple plugs are his plugs where he acts out his friendship with the plugged artist. The video for S.A.N.T.A.N.A., pictured above, is a graphic illustration of this dynamic. S.A.N.T.A.N.A. is a pretty insufferable, though somehow addictive, chipmunk rap song. The sample (of someone saying 'Santana,' along with some crap about how he squeezes hammers) is sped up to the point where it's probably been clinically proven to damage the hearing of dogs, and Juelz doesn't really help matters. Yet Cam redeems the whole enterprise with his wacky decision to stand next to Juelz in a huge fur coat and lip-sync the chipmunk. (That's what he's doing in the still - lip-syncing 'Santana' and pointing to Juelz.) What was a really annoying, clunkily rapped song from Santana about how he's such a super guy turns into a video about a bizarre but sweet friendship between two guys in matching furs. By lip-syncing the chipmunk, Cam flips the obnoxious egotism of the production into a video about a guy who's so tight with his friend that he's way beyond just doing guest cheerleading on his friend's record, he'll actually lip-sync a chipmunk saying his friend's name over and over. It's like a meta-Santana's Town.

There are plenty more cases of amicable cheerleading in Cam's work; I particularly love 'Un Kasa,' the opening track of Diplomatic Immunity, where Cam repeats in seeming amazement every shitty line that comes out of the Krayon Man Rockstar's mouth. But now I want to turn my attention to something quite different, songs where Cam speaks on behalf of his friend and the artist he's plugging. I'm thinking of course of 'I Am Dame Dash' and 'This Is Jim Jones.' The conceit of 'I Am Dame Dash,' if you've never heard this novel piece of work, is that, since Dame can't rap, he needs Cam and Jim Jones to rap "about how I got that money and copped them cakes" for him. You could look at it as a unique product of Dame's megalomaniacial imagination, but it's also arguably a song with its roots in that forgotten art, the DJ song. (That is, those old-school songs where the rapper talks about what a great guy his DJ is.) Jim, predictably, raps about himself, but Cam offers a beautiful little mini-biography of his man:

In '87, dog, my man Dame was a cake chopper
Eighth chopper, now he got a gray chopper
Harlem, Brooklyn, Philly, the whole states proper

Shrimp, steak, 42nd, they ate lobsters
He used to stack up his chips
Crashed up his whip lookin' back at a bitch
Left it, 'F' it, we bout to get twelve Jeeps...

That said, there's something a little forced about Cam's guest spot; he doesn't rap about Dame with a great deal of joy or even that undeserved sense of awe with which he frequently speaks of Juelz, 'The Great One.' You don't get the sense he likes Dame a great deal, and ultimately his verse feels less like a gesture of sincere friendship, though it clearly is that to an extent, than a returned favor. The opposite is the case of 'He Is Jim Jones,' probably the prettiest thing in the Dipset canon. Over a gorgeous Heatmakers beat - warm strings and a sample of Terry Huff, sped-up to the point of incomprehensibility, that sounds like a sweetly warbling bird - Cam shows up. So often a snarling amoral monster, here he's all warmth. Cam announces "my man Jim Jones," and then looks back on their many years of friendship in his daffy way, years filled, he says, with "a lot of devastation, larceny, defeat, misconceptions." But now is no time to look back on such miseries, not over this beautiful beat, so "fuck all that," Cam says - "I don't know what that's about but fuck all that," fuck the misfortunes he and his best friend in the world were dealt. Now is the time to look forward to their future, to Jim's future. "It's your turn, you up nigga, let's go!", Cam says, and off Jim goes. At first, of course, you think what a shame it is that this gorgeous beat is being wasted on a clod who says, in consecutive lines, that he's "an addictive obsession" and "my dick's an obsession." But then Cam comes back to deliver the hook:

This is Jim Jones, he's breezin' on chrome
Your best bet is leave him alone
O.G. in them stones, spent G's on them stones
Now mami, just sing me the tone

and any infelicity in Jim's rapping is forgotten. Every man, you think, should get a pocket symphony written to his life as beautiful as this. His ordinariness becomes besides the point, or rather it is the point, and when Jim cries "we did it, we did it!" you almost want to be his friend too.

The Diplomats, 'Stop-N-Go,' Diplomatic Immunity 2 (2004).

Juelz Santana f. Cam'ron, 'Dipset (Santana's Town),' From Me to U (2003).

The Diplomats, 'Un Casa,' Diplomatic Immunity (2003).

Dame Dash f. Cam'ron & Jim Jones, 'I Am Dame Dash,' Dame Dash Presents: Paid In Full Soundtrack (2002).

Jim Jones f. Cam'ron, 'This Is Jim Jones,' On My Way To Church (2004).

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