In 1997, two rappers from the Bronx took hip-hop back to 1973.
It’s hard to imagine anyone worse suited to the late-’90s rap scene than Camp Lo’s Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede, a pair of Asti Spumante-swigging, blaxploitation-flick-obsessed iconoclasts. They spit rhymes in dense, twisting cadences, using abstract retro slang of their own invention. Wrapping their vocals in the best bits of ’70s cornball funk, the group embraces the so-called Me Decade like no one else. That 1997 debut, Uptown Saturday Night, was pure escapist hip-hop fun, set in an alternate history where the cultural cannon embraces the works of Pam Grier and Richard Roundtree as our own embraces Shakespeare and the films of Uwe Boll.
Despite critical praise, the duo disappeared after this auspicious debut, and it would be five years until Cheeba and Suede resurfaced, with Let’s Do It Again. Sadly, they didn’t do it again. Camp Lo’s sophomore album, though competent, was a fairly mainstream effort that lacked the inventiveness of the debut. The release was generally ignored, and the group blinked off the radar for another five years. Now, a full decade after Camp Lo’s debut, Cheeba and Suede return with Black Hollywood.
The album is a welcome return to form, in great part due to producer Ski Beatz. Beatz, who worked on the best parts of Uptown Saturday Night, produces all twelve tracks on Black Hollywood. “Money Clap” and “Black Hollywood” use the vintage funk that perfectly fits the Camp Lo oeuvre, but the beats here aren’t all throwbacks — he’s clearly learned some new tricks over the last decade. Check the slick stutter edits on party anthem “Posse from the Bronx” and the hard-rock bombast of “82 Afros.”
When it all comes together, this is as much fun as you can hope to have listening to hip-hop. On “Suga Willie’s Revenge,” the duo sings the praises of a badass mega-pimp, and on “Sweet Claudine,” they swap places with James Earl Jones’s character in the 1974 film Claudine. But on Black Hollywood, Camp Lo also displays harder edges than on previous works. Sometimes this is successful, as on the energetic “Money Clap” and “82 Afros.” Other times, the effect is grating. The minimalist production on “Pushahoe” and “Zoom” doesn’t complement the verbal styles of the emcees. And I’m not sure what to make of “Jack N’ Jill,” a fairly nasty tale of underage sex, prostitution, murder, and social disease.
At its best, Camp Lo creates a thrilling fictitious world — a neo-blaxploitation playground where Cheeba and Suede can swap the sort of rhymes that would have made Shaft proud. When they stray from that world, they come off as garden-variety rappers with a somewhat distinct vocal delivery. But when they stay grounded within the sexy, exhilarating retro-world they’ve conjured, Camp Lo is unstoppable.