Hold on to that feeling
Journey released “Don’t Stop Believing” in 1981, when I was two years old, and the song has had such a weird cultural omnipresence throughout pretty much my entire life that once I got around to realizing how great the thing was it’d taken on so many weird subconscious memory-associations that I felt weirdly bound to it forever. I can actually pinpoint the exact moment where I started loving it: the scene in Monster where Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci, both uglied up for their roles, find a totally unexpected and temporary and ill-fated moment of happiness with each other, staring into each other’s eyes at a roller-disco. When that opening dreamlike piano-riff came in, I got this immediate flashback to hundreds of half-remembered doctor’s-office visits and long car trips. “Don’t Stop Believing” (like “Lights” and “Faithfully” and a whole lot of other Journey songs) is exactly the sort of song that can easily spend years as a constant background thrum, especially if it’s been an AOR-radio staple for most of your life, but that suddenly takes on this huge emotional weight the second you let it in. Earlier this year, the song took on new associations when it was used during the final scene of the final episode of The Sopranos, cutting off suddenly and abruptly during a tense and unresolved diner scene. Given how that scene made for one of the definitive cultural moments of the decade so far, “Don’t Stop Believing” should by rights absorb some of that scene’s lived-in paranoia, but the moment from the episode I think of when I hear the song now is when Carmela walks into the diner and smiles at Tony. The scene makes abundantly clear that Tony will never know peace again for more than a second, but he gets a second of it when she walks in and the song starts playing, and it ties in with that sort of doomed and fleeting but all-encompassing happiness that it had in that scene from Monster. When I got married last month, Bridget and I wanted “Don’t Stop Believing” to be the last song the DJ played; we had this image in mind of all our friends signing along as the night was ending. It didn’t happen; police shut the wedding down, and so the last song ended up being “Into the Groove” or “Hot in Herre” or something, which is fine. But my mental image of “Don’t Stop Believing” playing at the wedding remains completely real to me, almost as though it actually did happen.
So Cam’ron has this new double-CD mixtape coming out in a couple of days; it’ll be the first thing we’ve heard from him since he maybe sort of went to hiding during simultaneous feuds with 50 Cent and Roc-A-Fella hired muscle Tru Life earlier this year. “Just Us” is one of the two songs from that mixtape that Cam has leaked, and it’s built from that opening “Don’t Stop Believing” piano-riff. Cam loves filling out mixtapes with great songs made from super-obvious and financially unfeasible samples, like that one track where he rapped over Prince’s “Diamonds and Pearls.” He never got to officially release that one, and he probably won’t officially release “Just Us” either, though it doesn’t much matter. “Just Us” is probably too weird and oblique to be a big hit anyway, and so it’s probably just now actualizing its potential as a widely-circulated mixtape track. Still, “Just Us” is probably my favorite Cam’ron song since, I don’t know, “Killa Cam.” On the first verse, Cam tells a story: he meets a woman and finds an unexpected moment of basic human connection. It starts out with a total cheesed-out pickup line, one you actually can imagine a goofball like Cam trying and scoring with: “She said she hate a pusher / I said I hate a booger / A snotty attitude.” A few moments later, though, they’re smoking weed together and she’s telling him all her problems: got laid off, father dead, mother with breast cancer, son with sickle-cell. And it reminds me of that moment from Monster, that moment where two damaged people find each other: “Under this damn pressure / She looked at me, I looked at her, and then Cam measured.” And then the punchline: “Started to sanchez her.” (Later, he clarifies: “Yes, the dirty one.”) But the story that came before is too heavy to just be the setup for some nasty shit-sex joke, and Cam knows it; he’s just the type of guy who can’t resist leavening the mood with a nasty shit-sex joke. The chorus to “Just Us,” which Cam sort of sings, is genuinely pretty. I have no idea what some of the stuff Cam says on the second verse means: “Once the grape get dry, hope y’all enjoy the raisin”? But even there, even as he’s bragging about being a candle because he’s sitting on cake, he’s talking with real sympathy about the problems of the girls he knows: “Tanya living check-to-check / Kim getting high, no self-respect.”
Cam is a funny guy. “Glitter,” his other new song, is about a two-year-old asking why he’s all covered in glittery jewelry, and Cam can’t resist pointing out on the chorus that the kid’s diaper is “filled up with shit.” (Cam likes talking about shit.) In the lead-up to the new mixtape, he’s been making a lot of fun of all the rampant speculation about his silent period. But in this interview with Miss Info, Cam reveals the real reason he’s disappeared for half the year: his mother, in Florida, had a stroke, and he’s been taking care of her and making sure she’s OK. Maybe it’s completely wrong to be looking for parallels between someone’s real life and his music in situations like this, but i like to think there’s a sort of compassionate streak running through “Just Us,” despite all the dirty sanchez jokes, and that that compassionate streak is the same thing that makes Cam quit rap for six months to take care of his mother even though that hiatus makes him look weak and afraid. Writing about “Just Us,” Brandon Soderberg mentions that maybe the Journey sample plugs into the Sopranos connection: “the image of a getting a little older, made too many mistakes, sorta paranoid Tony Soprano would certainly resonate with Cam.” Maybe he’s right. But I think “Just Us” works so well because it plays on the desperate romanticism of “Don’t Stop Believing,” that same quality that the Monster scene tapped into. “Just Us” isn’t black superhero music. Cam’s made superhero music before, but “Just Us” is something more grounded and pointed and maybe more necessary. If there’s more of that on Public Enemy No. 1, I’m more than willing to just pretend Killa Season and “Curtis” never happened.
Voice review: Jon Caramanica on Cam’ron’s Purple Haze