By Michael Atkinson
By Luke Winkie
By Steve Weinstein
By Brian McManus
By Brian McManus
By Dan McQuade
By Dan McQuade
By Brian McManus
On Friday night, early-aughts Harlem rap conglomerate the Diplomats—Cam'ron, Jim Jones, Juelz Santana, Freekey Zekey, and various B-teamers—will assemble at Hammerstein Ballroom for their first full concert since reforming this summer. Naturally, the night will belong to newly reconciled frenemies and Dipset founders Killa Cam and the "Capo" (as Jones is known). Yet the pair and their Twin Tower–size egos could be challenged for "most important person in the room" status by someone who isn't, technically speaking, an official member. That would be Vado, the Cam'ron sidekick who has risen from relative obscurity to become one of New York rap's most potent forces in recent months.
The 25-year-old MC from 144th Street and Lenox Avenue first came to light via Cam'ron's Boss of All Bosses mixtape series, holding his own with—and occasionally outshining—his flamboyant mentor. And this summer, Vado delivered one of the more palpable New York–generated club anthems in recent memory with "Speaking in Tungs," a track that gained added notoriety last month when Justin Bieber, a/k/a Shawty Mane, rapped over the beat in an instantly infamous YouTube clip. Though he didn't coin the phrase, Vado is also behind the sudden ubiquity of "slime," an unlikely term of endearment whose usage has followed his music from Harlem into the suburbs—a drawn-out, shouted "Sliiiiiiime" is, along with the equally guttural "Huhhhhhhh," one of the rapper's signature ad-libs. With a highly regarded solo release now under his belt in last month's Slime Flu (E1 Music), the student, in some senses, appears to be on his way to eclipsing the light of his sensei.
Not that Vado is a better rapper than Cam'ron. Killa easily out-rhymes his prodigy on "Speaking in Tungs," landing nearly all the best lines ("Mami like athletes, I start to laugh again/What's your last name, boo, Kardashian?") on what is, for now, Vado's signature tune. But in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of hip-hop, Vado is commanding sustained attention of the sort Cam (rather unjustly—he's as good as ever right now) hasn't seen since the Dip's peak around 2004. His ascension has been of the word-of-mouth, barbershop-recommendation variety, a quaint anomaly in an era when even a gangster rapper like Freddie Gibbs is premiering music on Pitchfork. While bloggers and critics spent October rationalizing Flockaveli and pondering whether Odd Future's online fame could possibly translate to real-world success, Vado dropped one of the year's strongest rap releases with little acknowledgment from the press.
New York rap boosters, meanwhile, have taken to calling Slime Flu—"just a mixtape," in Vado's words, originally intended as a free online release—a classic. That's going a bit far, but the disc is impressively consistent, striking a satisfying balance between sinister and celebratory material. Brusque and direct, Vado makes up for his lack of finesse with an eye for colorful detail: "Ice the G-Shock Glide/All blue like Megan Fox eyes/Small fry, you a smart guy/Still can't believe King of Pop died/No tears, my heart cried/Like when my pops died."
New York rap has fallen so far out of fashion that some local rappers have begun distancing themselves from their hometown, despite it being, you know, hip-hop's birthplace. (See Nicki Minaj's recent "I'm not a New York rapper" ruse.) Others, meanwhile, continue to alienate potential listeners outside the city with tedious talk of bringing New York back (see Joell Ortiz, et al.). Vado circumvents this trap by remaining fiercely provincial. He's more concerned with his little corner of Harlem (though, truth be told, he now resides in New Jersey) than the city itself, layering his rhymes with fresh local slang and flipped lines from Big L, Mase, and, of course, Cam'ron, neighborhood fixtures whom he idolized growing up. "When I was a kid, I lived on 144th, and Cam had a little crib on 144th, a little chill spot for him and his slimes," he recalls. "You might see Cam riding down the block on a bicycle in a dread hat and shades . . . word!"
Harlem has a rich tradition of producing flamboyant, compellingly arrogant figures that blur the line between hero and villain—Nicky Barnes, Damon Dash, Charlie Rangel. Cam'ron was the seeming apotheosis of this trope, dressing only in pink for a time, pulling his Lamborghini up to the projects just because, and generally lyrically portraying himself as the world's most cold-hearted jerk. With the Diplomats, he and childhood friends Jones and Zekey gave these impulses an inclusive, blue-collar twist, recruiting and grooming younger Harlem talents like Santana and J.R. Writer. As New York was losing its position as hip-hop's power center to the South circa 2003, the multi-tentacled Dipset positioned itself as a heroically self-sufficient "movement," releasing music via both an unprecedented stream of underground mixtapes and official releases from also-ran indie Koch Records (now E1). By 2006, their internal power structure was shifting: Jones, once Cam'ron's hype man, had a breakout solo hit in "We Fly High"; Cam's Killa Season, a middling soundtrack to an unbearable movie, was a flop. Sometime around the latter's YouTube-driven feud with 50 Cent, he and Jones stopped speaking, dividing the crew.
When Cam'ron—MIA for nearly two years as he cared for his ailing mom in Florida—re-emerged last year, Vado saw an opportunity. "I felt we had enough icons come out of Harlem, and I wanted to keep the tradition strong by coming up under one of them," he says. Cam's comeback effort, the unjustly unheralded Crime Pays, had been a mostly solitary effort; Vado finagled an introduction from their mutual friend Suga Duga, impressing the famously aloof Cam with a style that combined elements of Jones's bluntness, Santana's youthful bravado, and Cam's wit into a single package. A new clique called the U.N., short for "Us Now," was born. "Vado, he speaks about Harlem, he speaks about a lot of stuff I can relate to," Cam'ron told rap website Vlad TV. "And then not only that, he can really rhyme. . . . He's a young guy with an old soul, so a lot of the stuff he was spitting, I really felt it."
Though he says he's been welcomed into the Diplomats by Jones and the others (Dipset's 40 Cal, in fact, was a childhood friend) and will appear on the upcoming Diplomats reunion album, Vado's relationship to the crew remains a source of confusion. He likens the situation to Dr. Dre's introduction of Eminem in the late '90s. "At that same time, Dre also brought back Snoop and the Dogg Pound," Vado says. "Eminem was a part of that, but Eminem always did his own thing. He had his own team, but at the same time, he was there for anything Dre needed. That's how it is with me and Cam. If Cam needs me for anything, I'm there."
The Diplomats play Hammerstein Ballroom November 26. Vado plays Temptations December 1.