By Gili Malinsky
By Bob Ruggiero
By Hilary Hughes
By Peter Gerstenzang
By David R. Adler
By Devon Maloney
By Brian McManus
By Jessica Hopper
When news first leaked that erstwhile Harlem bard Cameron "Killa" Giles was returning from his mysterious three-year sabbatical to grace the world with new music, Internet rap nerds, particularly New York ones, seemed almost pathetically eager to welcome him back into the fold. Shit's been mausoleum-quiet on the New York hip-hop front these days, inspiring a certain misguided nostalgia for the extremely recent past—2005, to be exact, when Cam and his Diplomats crew were still very much "moving the movement." The yearning for something New York–based to latch onto has gotten so bad that even Max B, with his sub–Jim Jones rhyme skills, stupid coonskin cap, and stupider nicknames ("Wavy Crockett"? Is shit like this really acceptable now?) started looking good for a minute. But then Cam'ron emerged from his self-imposed exile as inexplicably as he'd gone into it, announcing that somewhere in between shooting videos of himself standing around in his boxers in front of a sunken pool and prank-calling Hot 97, he had recorded a new album. And just like that, it was Killa Season again on the blogs, which went about rolling out the pink carpet for their returning hero.
The result, Crime Pays, is not a total disaster. But good luck to anyone trying to build a triumphant narrative arc about its release. Whatever he did with his time off, it evidently did not involve searching the depths of his soul, sweating over his rhyme pad, or gathering top-shelf tracks. His prolonged hiatus has about as much bearing on Crime Pays as does his halfhearted feud with 50 Cent, his excommunication from the Diplomats, and his mother's recent stroke—which is to say, none at all. If the poignant first single "I Hate My Job" had you dreaming of a concept album detailing the struggles of Killa-in-Exile, keep dreaming: Cam is back, but as far as he knows or cares, nothing's changed.
The good news for Killa fanatics is that he at least sounds like he's enjoying himself, and if he never manages wordplay to match the heights of 2004's labyrinthine Purple Haze, he is nonetheless 20 times more animated here than he was on slack, enervated 2006 follow-up Killa Season. The gap separating his regal posturing and dime-store production continues to entertain: On "Cooking Up," he tosses off immaculate punchlines like, "Let me make it plain, since Dana Danes I made it rain/Now in the strip club, the Benjis turn to paper planes" over a buzzing synth earworm that needs no modification to become a ringtone. On his best moments—dicing the declaration "I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by six" into a hail of gibberish on "Get It in Ohio"—he almost resembles the riddling, invincible street prowler of Purple Haze; on "Where I Know You From?" he bounces off rounded vowels like trampolines: "You a passer/Me, I got a scorer's aura/Owe me money?/Your wife, son, and daughter oughta/Leave the country/I'm thinking like Bora Bora."
Alas, if there wasn't at least one transparently atrocious song and five too many tracks, it just wouldn't be a Cam'ron album. And, well, the chanted hook of "Cookies N Some Apple Juice" goes thusly: "Milk, milk, lemonade/'Round the corner, fudge is made." Cam also remains far too generous to his mic-hogging foot soldiers—perhaps simply to make the difference between hilariously finessed, impeccably worded ignorance, and artlessly shouted ignorance crystal-clear. The production, while slightly north of Killa Season's pay scale, certainly hasn't left the neighborhood: Except for the breezy spring-rap jam "Never Ever" and the goofy "Groove Me Baby"–sampling "Silky (No Homo)," the beats are held together with scotch tape. "There's ain't no money in this rap game," Cam'ron once infamously claimed. "I only rap because I'm nice." Such benevolence is appreciated, but would it be presumptuous to ask that, the next time he returns out of nowhere from an inexplicable absence, he invest a little more effort in his charity?