Now that Tha Carter IV has been released to the collective disappointment of most of the rap-listening community, it’s almost inevitable that Lil Wayne will no longer be considered the “Best Rapper Alive.” Sorry Weezy, but you’ve fallen off, and you’ve fallen off hard. You peaked with Tha Carter III, and everything else has been a slow but steady decline.
There was a time when Cam’ron (neé Cameron Giles) was the best rapper alive, too. Just like Wayne is doing, he fell off too. But he left us one pure, unadulterated document of his greatness: 2004’s Purple Haze, the album we’ll be talking about today.
For about 14 months in the middle of this decade, Cam’Ron was the absolute best rapper in the universe. A stone-cold gangster with a Dadaist sensibility more befitting of somebody down with the Anticon crew, Cameron Giles created his own dystopian Day-Glo fantasyland populated by him and the immortal Diplomats crew. He delivered lines like, “Zoom zoom boom boom tomb tombs” with absolute straight-faced sincerity, and backed up his surreal shit-talk with casually brilliant, intricately tongue-twisters that dropped jaws from Harlem to Houston. Perhaps most impressively, he delivered all of his lines in a casual cadence that suggested he might have been more interested in napping rather than rapping. Check this effortless freestyle he kicked on BET’s Rap City that remains perhaps his finest moment. It’s sandwiched between freestyles from Webbie and Young Joc, but don’t let that deter you, especially because if you watch it you are guaranteed to hear Cam rap the word “Yahtzee.”
More than anyone else, Cam straddled the line between being one of those super lyrical cats who burned out along with Rawkus Records, and being a total fucking moron. This rap-savant archetype would rise to prominence with Cam, and find a second iteration in Lil Wayne, then with Gucci Mane, and in Lil B, might have found its logical conclusion.
Don’t get it twisted. Back in the day, Killa Cam was a weirdo up there with the likes of Kool Keith and MF Doom. He bragged about working with scientists to invent a new color, argued with Bill O’Reilley on national television, and made a terrible/amazing movie in which his character, in an act of arch badassery, commits a drive-by shooting on a bicycle.
And that was just the stuff he did off the mic. On Purple Haze, Cam’ron went there, if by “there” of course you meant made talking nonsense sound beautiful. He threatened to shoot Siskel and Ebert, talked about how he owned so many fur coats that he could call his closet “pet cemetery,” and featured a skit where he and a girl argued about what sound a duck makes. He got away with it all by being an enunciator of the highest order, managing to make on-paper awkward lines like, “The hooligan in Houlahan’s/maneuvering’s nothing new to me” sound like they’d been hood idioms years before Cam popped a pamper, let alone a glock.
The album is kinda-sorta structured around a series of skits narrated by Mizzle, a white dude in Cam’s crew that Cam used to sell to until he got clean, and then kept around for comedic purposes. Or something. Mizzle’s existence is one of the great mysteries of the album. He’s not a particularly witty or elucidatory narrator (or, honestly, even a convincing ex-crackhead), and the only time he actually interacts with Cam’ron, he gets beaten up. He is a human appendix, a totally vestigial element to this album, and yet every time I hear his annoying fucking ass, he becomes more and more endearing. That’s the mark of a classic album—even the parts that suck are still perfect.
The album’s beats, meanwhile, took the sped-up soul sample mentality of the early 2000s and perfect it, offering an airy lightness to counteract the violent, misogynist and often scary world that Cam’ron asked you to inhabit. “Down And Out,” for example, features the finest Kanye West beat of 2004, sampling William Bell and Mavis Staples to absolutely bouncy effect, making you almost willfully ignore the part where Cam talks about how you should feel flattered that he’s stealing your girlfriend. On “Killa Cam,” The Heatmakerz make Opera Steve (owner of the absolute best nickname of all time) sing some random fake patois nonsense, loops it and hit paydirt, perfecting Bangladesh’s “A Milli” trick years before he even thought about trying it.
“Killa Cam” is also notable for being one of the first instances of one of my favorite hip-hop mini-tropes: when a rapper introduces a concept and then negates it completely. That would happen when Killa raps, “Yellow diamonds in my ears, call em ‘Lemonheads’,” and follows it up with, “Lemonhead, end up dead,” which is the equivalent of a 4-year-old child announcing that he has a secret nickname that only he can call himself. Other proponents of this style include Lil Wayne (“Tunechi be my name/Don’t ask me how I got it.”) and Drake, who on “Marvin’s Room” sings, “I’ve had sex four times this week, I’ll explain,” and never actually gets around to explaining why he’s had sex four times this week.
Anyways, enough of that contemporary shit. We’re in 2004 (no Swift Boat). Cam’ron chose his beats so that he and his guests could actually interact with them in a way that you seldom see anymore in today’s relentless beatjacking mixtape culture. “More Gangsta Music” samples M.O.P. yelling the word “GUILTY!” over and over, setting a standard for vocal enthusiasm that any rapper worth his Nikes better hope to match. Juelz Santana seizes the moment and runs with it, delivering the absolute verse of his life. Half pure youthful exuberance (I think Santana might have been twelve when he recorded this) and half unchecked bravado, Santana’s verse has him, in a moment of proto-Waka-Flockality, spending approximately forty percent of his mic time yelling “Chyeah!” and “Boh boh boh boh!,” filling in the gaps with boasts that only sort of make sense, and are all the better for their incoherence. I’ve spent hours puzzling over his claim of, “I’m icy on purpose!”, and I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on what he means. He’s saying that most other rappers who happen to wear diamonds fall into piles of them and are too lazy to take them off. He, on the other hand, has made the conscious decision that wearing a bunch of diamonds is his thing. It’s high-concept as fuck, and the beauty of that line alone proves that Juelz Santana is a genius, no matter what his output both before and after that verse might suggest.
There is a mindset amongst many indie rock fans, that an album has to be a pure, cohesive document that you appreciate every part of, as an English major might with the collected works of Gogol, or a Sioux Indian might with a freshly speared buffalo. If you come into Purple Haze with that mentality, then you will be severely disappointed. Hell, even Prefix, in our infinite wisdom, gave the album a 7.0 and called it an uneven mess, writing about it as if we’d encountered a box that had no discernable shape and whose colors (except for purple, obviously) didn’t necessarily fall in line with the full spectrum of light. That reviewer had a point: even with Mizzle’s help, Purple Haze is as about as navigable as the Cape of Good Hope. Instead, you’ve got to abandon the indie rock attitude embrace the mentality of a hip-hop die-hard: Gogol’s pretty good, but Arabesque is the Pisces Iscariot of Russian literature, and nobody actually has any use for a fucking buffalo colon (except for, I guess, a buffalo), just as there’s not really any reason to listen to the “Rude Boy” skit or basically anything whose title sounds like it’s going to lead to some overtly misogynistic material.
These aren’t elements of the album that Killa should be penalized for, as again, to do so would go against the inherent tenets of hip-hop, where more is best and less is stupid, and you can just throw out the stuff you don’t like and move on. In 2011, I bet an album like Purple Haze would have done pretty well. Probably well enough to make Cam’ron the best rapper alive all over again.