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A decade ago the city limits of Harlem seemed to expand worldwide as the Dipset movement became a universally celebrated entity in hip-hop. From critics to customers, mainstream audiences to underground heads, traditionalists to avant garde indie kids, Dipset seemed to have something to offer everybody. Lead by Cam’ron’s unshakable charisma, Dipset left a footprint of that first decade of 2000s rap, the likes of which we’re still feeling the effects of. However, one of the most peculiar career trajectories of the outfit has been the crew’s youngest and most promising member Juelz Santana. Performing this Sunday at B.B. King, Santana’s career buzz has had a roller-coaster-like momentum, garnering him signature hits and huge moments of attention with limited and often evaporating follow-through. This is the Start and Stop of Juelz Santana.
We got our first glimpse of Santana on the 2000 Trackmasters remix of Cam’ron’s “What Means the World to You.” It’s a bizarre placement for the then-18-year-old Harlem upstart as he and Cam were the only two non-Southern artists on the track at a time when the hip-hop world at large wasn’t even paying enough attention to the south to acknowledge it, let alone hate on it. But next to stellar verses from UGK, Ludacris, and a career best from Trina, Santana more than held his own. He’d go on to make worthwhile appearances on the next few Cam releases, ultimately having his breakthrough moment on 2002’s “Hey Ma,” where the youngster affirmed that, despite his age, he could tell you “what the 80s like.”
That same year, Santana came under fire when, less than 12 months after the September 11th terrorist attacks, his line about flight hijacker Mohammad Atta on the Diplomats track “I Love You” ruffled feathers. Santana defended the rhyme, which went “I worship the prophet/ The great Mohammed Omar Atta/ For his courage behind the wheel of the plane/ Reminds me when I was dealin’ the ‘caine” by telling NME “I feel my Diplomats are my team and I’m going to do whatever it takes for them, for my people, the same way as he did for his people. Not that I support him or what he did, but in order for him to do that, it had to take courage and love for what he believed in.” The line was later deleted from the song’s official retail release on the Diplomatic Immunity album.
A lyric that could be easily misinterpreted as worshipping a key figure in the greatest terrorist attack on American soil isn’t the easiest way to endear a new artist to the public, and truthfully it was one of many hurdles that faced Santana during the release of his debut album From Me to You. Arriving on Def Jam in 2003 and despite landing the No. 8 slot on the Billboard 200, by Santana’s own admission it didn’t really connect with audiences. Considering the monster year Def Jam had with the aforementioned Diplomats album, Jay-Z’s The Black Album, Ludacris’ Chicken-N-Beer and Freeway’s Philadelphia Freeway, and the rap world already being firmly in the grasp of 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Trying and Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, it was incredibly easy for Santana’s debut to get lost in the shuffle. Still, Santana remained a stalwart favorite on mixtapes and Dipset-related releases, keeping his buzz potent and growing his audience fan-by-fan.
When it came time to release his sophomore album What the Game’s Been Missing, Santana was in a much different place and was on the verge of being the biggest he’d ever been. Lead by the infectious “Mic Check” single that dominated the summer of 2005 and boasted an ever-elusive Rakim cameo, Santana had finally won over a majority of the traditional rap fanbase and, out of nowhere, expanded into crossover pop territory with “There it Go (The Whistle Song)” and “Oh Yes,” both of which landed him a spot on MTV’s “TRL” of all places. Plus, the deluxe edition of the album opened-up to include a pop-up Juelz in the art layout, one of the best reasons we’ve ever found to pay for a “deluxe edition” of anything. Dipset was hotter than ever, and Santana kept the Dip-train rolling, continuing his string of hits into his appearance on the remix of fellow Dipset member Jim Jones’ “Ballin’.”
But, from there onward, the story of Juelz Santana gets hazy.
After a mixtape together, including the outrageously promising cut “Black Democrats,” Santana and Lil Wayne were supposed to release a collaborative album called I Can’t Feel My Face that, while rumored for years, never materialized. “Never materialized” are unfortunately two words that come up all too often in Santana’s ongoing saga. His long-awaited third album Born to Lose, Built to Win was originally slated for a 2007 release and has still yet to emerge, despite successful singles with Just Blaze in 2007’s “The Second Coming,” 2009’s “Mixing Up the Medicine” with Yelawolf and 2010’s “Back to the Crib” with Chris Brown. 2010 also saw Santana steal the show on Lloyd Banks’ “Beamer, Benz or Bentley,” leading many to speculate the Santana resurgence was right around the corner. Unfortunately, Santana’s 2011 was a year full of raids and arrests, once again derailing the momentum he’d worked so hard to recapture.
Santana bounced back by appearing on reality shows and then finally releasing his mixtape God Will’n in 2013. A solid eight years since his last release (which is essentially four lifetimes in rap careers) it wound up being received as one of the year’s best, going from initially being a sleeper hit to a staple of “Best of 2013” lists. Things still seem a bit turbulent at Camp Santana, taking to his Instagram and Twitter to throw occasional shots at Def Jam who, by all accounts, are still his label (despite not updating his official site since 2005). This year saw Santana as a welcome part of Cam’ron’s Dipset reunion track “Dipshits,” and this past week has swarmed with rumors of Santana signing to Wayne’s Young Money imprint. It’s still unclear as to what exactly the future holds for Santana, but if history’s any indication, we should be getting some idea this Sunday night. Let’s go. Ay.