New York hip-hop had on off-year in 2004, but don’t tell that to the Diplomats, a.k.a. the Dip Set, a.k.a. the Purple City Byrd Gang. Whatever they’re calling themselves, the crew from Harlem — Cam’ron, Jim Jones, Juelz Santana and J.R. Writer — owned the city last year. They hit the streets heavy during the first half of the year before setting off the industry side of things in the second half, beginning with Jones’s surprisingly listenable On My Way to Church and culminating in Cam’ron’s career-best Purple Haze.
In between lies Diplomatic Immunity 2, which, like its predecessor from just one year earlier, is an inconsistent affair where genuine jewels bump up against forgettable throwaways. But ultimately it’s those jewels (no pun intended) from Diplomats top guns Cam and Santana that leave a lasting impression. The appropriate starting point is “S.A.N.T.A.N.A.,” one of the year’s standout singles and the latest example of why Santana is far and away the best emcee under twenty-five these days. (By the way, what ever happened to good teenaged emcees? LL Cool J was fifteen when he made Radio. When was the last time anyone Santana’s age or younger brought anything new to the table?) He might spend half the first verse of “S.A.N.T.A.N.A.” bouncing off lines from Scarface, but the playful way he manipulates Pacino’s lines establishes the near-obnoxious tone that actually makes the track work — high-pitched cackling from Santana’s five-year-old cousin and all.
As with most Dip releases, the production hardly gets any notice, but as always, it’s just as good as what they’d get from overexposed big names for five times the price. The unknown Treblemakers provide the heat on “S.A.N.T.A.N.A.,” and Dip regulars the Heatmakerz and Stay Gettin’ bring almost everything else, which ranges from could-be-a-little-better (Stay Gettin’ on “Dead Muthafuckas”) to pretty damn good (the Heatmakerz on “Crunk Music”).
What might be most significant about Diplomatic Immunity 2 is the label. Even with Cam (he’s since left because of issues with label pres Jay-Z) and Santana under contract to Roc-a-fella/Def Jam, which released the first Diplomats album, Dip Set chose to release Diplomatic Immunity 2 through Koch. It’s a sign of the times as more and more A-list artists capable of pulling their weight in a major label deal are realizing they can make more cash going the independent route, so long as they have their own hype machine going, a la the Diplomats’ mixtapes. Without intrusive A&Rs and overrated “super-producers” getting in the way, expect more unfocused but undiluted albums from first-tier hip-hop acts like the Diplomats.