“I pitch China in Boston, like Dice K, that white yay”
I don’t know why I even still watch the show, but on Monday’s Rap City, in between showing videos, Q45 was doing this thing where he’d walk around Harlem and ask random passersby if they’d seen Cam’ron in Harlem anytime lately. He kept calling Cam “the missing rapper”; it was really annoying. In pretty much any situation, this would be a curious way for Q45 to waste the screen-time he could be using to ask some DJ about his MySpace page, but that Monday show was four days after Cam’ron had released a double-disc mixtape for free on the internet (or in front of the Apollo Theater, if you bothered to show up, which Cam didn’t), and it makes absolutely no sense to ask why someone is missing just days after he releases two hours of new music. Public Enemy No. 1 starts out with Cam ranting for six-minutes about bullshit stunts like the one Q45 just pulled, taking time out to bitch about NYPD YouTube surveillance and to bid a fond goodbye to Jim Jones (“Ain’t nothing last forever … Have a great career!”). Cam has definitely been keeping a low profile ever since declaring war on 50 Cent earlier this year, but whether that hiatus was intentional or not, it might turn out to be the best career move he could’ve made. While virtually every other rapper in the universe (including Jim Jones) has been regaling anyone who’ll listen with inside-baseball talk about marketing plans and first-week numbers, Cam has gone off the grid, and in the process he’s created a weird cult-leader sense of mystery around himself. Given that Cam is too weird a rapper to maintain any level of pop stardom for any protracted period of time, that mystique fits him beautifully. Since Public Enemy No. 1 is a mixtape rather than an album, since it’s totally free of big-name guest-appearances or target demographics or cleared samples or any general sense of coherence, it feels almost like Cam willed the thing into existence. And it doesn’t hurt that despite its double-disc bloat, Public Enemy No. 1 is more absorbing than virtually any rap album I’ve heard lately.
Killa Season, the album Cam put out last year, is generally regarded as his career low-point, but even that album wasn’t that bad. “Suck It or Not” remains great either despite or because of its total asshole ignorance, and “I.B.S.” is both disarming and disturbing in its candidness. But yeah, the whole formula of Cam rapping borderline-nonsensically over histrionic opera samples and cheap synth-preset beats was getting a little old, especially when no-talent cronies like Max B and 40 Cal were backing him up every other song. Well, Max B is in prison or something now, but 40 Cal is still kicking around, and Public Enemy is totally packed with all the stuff that was getting tired when Cam made Killa Season. And the weird thing is that it suddenly sound great, almost comforting, after Cam’s period of absence. It helps that the mixtape’s questionable legality allows Cam to rap over some insanely recognizable samples: melodramatic 70s stadium-rock from Journey and (I think) Foreigner, indelible classic reggae from Sister Nancy, depressive soul-rap from Ice Cube and Nas, unjustly forgotten early-00s soundtrack-fare dance-rap from Pastor Troy and Timbaland. “Can’t Hurt My Style” has a beat that sounds like an insanely sped-up calliope version of DJ Shadow’s “Organ Donor” with big, clumsy drums and a goofy singsong hook. “Fit for the Grind 2” has evil horror-movie pianos and voice-clips of George Bush speeches manipulated so he sounds like he’s admitting that he’s trained by Al Qaeda. Jones and Juelz Santana are gone, but older Dipset knucleheads like Hell Rell remain, and I’m sort of shocked to find that I actually really like Hell Rell these days, possibly because I may or may not have sold him a coffee table six years ago but also partly because of lines like this: “Standin’ on the roof, shootin’ off a Uzi / I’m Ruger Ricardo, bitch; I’m looking for a Lucy.” Ruger Ricardo! We also get a whole bunch of verses and a couple of solo tracks each from two new proteges, Tom Gist and Penz. Gist and Penz are both at least a little bit better than the average Dipset hooligan because both of them show vulnerability and personality in ways that NY mixtape rappers never, ever allow themselves. On “Kill My Dog,” where Gist and Cam get all emo about dead friends over tinkly melodramatic pianos, Gist actually sounds like Cam may have picked him off a Def Poetry Jam audition line. And even if Penz sounds like a D-Block second-stringer as often as not, he also offers a harrowing and shockingly moving a capella freestyle about growing up in foster care. For the first time in a while, the guys who share track space with Cam’ron aren’t always reasons to hit fast-forward.
And then there’s Cam himself. On Public Enemy No. 1, Cam doesn’t offer the same level of batshit-crazy free-associative ontamontapia nonsense that he had on, say, “Get Em Girls,” but the virtuosic eloquence of his puffed-up tough-talk is something to behold. Over and over again, he keeps the same rhyme-scheme going for verses at a time. Last week, I gushed about the complex wound-up interpersonal dynamics of “Just Us,” an early leaked track and my favorite thing on the mixtape. On most of the tape, though, he talks standard guns-and-money stuff, but he redeems it through sheer articulate weirdness: “Get with me physically, I’ll take you out your misery / My bracelet is Times Square, necklace a Christmas tree / The piece you see across the entire state, children / The night version of the Empire State Building.” Sometimes he’ll ride the same vocal sound so hard that he starts to sound loopy: “Let the shit begin / We get it out, they ship it in / The shipment that they ship is sitting right there on the shit, my friend.” (And it doesn’t even matter much that he repeats the word ship a billion times since that line comes at the end of a whole sixteen of nothing but stuff that rhymes with “shit begin.”) There’s a whole lot of pleasure to be had in the total unlikeliness of Cam’s grandest boasts: “Cipriani for a fly dinner / Me, Mark Cuban, and the boy Steinbrenner.” Cam is, after all, funny as hell, and even the two skits on the first CD are fucking hilarious, “Roaches in the Chicken” in particular. Cam is also one of the very few New York rappers with the vocal flexibility to flow on Southern beats as well as any Southern rapper, something he reminds us of on the group freestyle over Pastor Troy’s “Are We Cuttin’.” The mixtape is way, way too long, of course, and I start to nod out midway through the second disc when Cam lets Penz carry things for five songs straight, only showing up for one verse. But Public Enemy No. 1 is still an embarrassment of ignorant riches and a pretty great way of declaring his continuing relevance. Cam is still here, and judging by this tape, he’s doing just fine; it’s not hard to imagine him churning out a couple more of these in the coming months. Maybe someone should tell Q45 to look harder.
Voice review: Jon Caramanica on Cam’ron’s Purple Haze