No matter how a music journalist does his or her work in 2014, the folding of Vibe’s and XXL’s print editions earlier this month shouldn’t represent a shriveling of reader interest so much as a shift in the way readers explore music media. Especially with regular and semi-regular publications — as opposed to online dailies — careful planning and editing are at a premium, and ultimately, The Plug is supposed to mirror that process, following the aforementioned mags in our own digital way.
Ideally, The Plug will be a source for extensive hip-hop coverage that’s engaged and well-researched, among other reader-respecting qualities. There’s no reason to feel like you have to read it all in one sitting; however, let it be known that a great many hours went into each aspect of this edition (not to mention the first two), and that has us confident that your time won’t be wasted.
In this volume, we review 17 new hip-hop releases, pick apart the majority of Cam’ron’s studio work, and talk to the instructor behind Georgia Regents University’s new course on Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city.
Trappers and Philosophers: Put it in a Song
By Michael Madden
Four weeks in, Georgia Regents University English professor Adam Diehl estimates that he’s mentioned Compton’s Kendrick Lamar, by name, in 90 percent of the “Good Kid, Mad Cities” class sessions he’s taught this fall. Yes, the course focuses on the incredibly dense and structurally ambitious Kendrick album that came out in October 2012, good kid, m.A.A.d city. Yes, this is already happening.
By now, Kendrick, 27, is Scorsese in ’76, Tiger in ’00, LeBron in ’07: a young gun already so accomplished that his mark on his field can’t be erased. GKMC is one of the main reasons for this. In reviews upon its release, a number of music journos were compelled to make literary connections — James Joyce’s gargantuan Ulysses was a common comparison. Whether or not that was stretching it, GKMC is an artistic work that no one in hip-hop has matched since, one that’s equal parts immediate and cerebral. This shit is vital.
Diehl, 31, has “always been one to refer to hip-hop in class,” and he ultimately believes GKMC can help his students write better. With a voice a little like that of 30 Rock actor Jack McBrayer, Diehl tells me over the phone that he didn’t think particularly highly of Kendrick at first. “I had been hearing the buzz about Kendrick for months [during the run-up to GKMC],” he says. “I thought the songs were interesting on the radio, but I couldn’t really get my head around [the hype]. The more times I heard ‘Poetic Justice’, the less sense it made, and then same thing for ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’.”
Eventually, the album (to borrow a phrase used by MC Eiht on 1993’s “Streiht Up Menace” and again on Kendrick’s “m.A.A.d city”) woke his punk ass up. “I finally listened to the whole album through YouTube and decided, ‘This sounds pretty intricate. I think I should buy it and give it a chance.’ I made a copy for my wife, and we both listened to it all fall last year, almost every day.” Diehl says he knew within a week of first hearing the entire album that he wanted to teach at least one of its songs — he started with “Swimming Pools (Drank)”. Within a month, he knew he wanted to teach the whole thing.
“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”, the 12-minute two-parter that touches on family, violence, prostitution, and religion, is Diehl’s favorite GKMC song to dissect. “There’s no way you could deny ‘Sing About Me’,” he says. “It’s just overwhelming. I’ve heard persona raps like ‘Stan’ by Eminem, but for Kendrick, it’s even more immersed in his album, because here’s Keisha’s sister [asking], ‘Why did you make a song about my sister?’ If you listen to the album, you get maybe 75 percent of that song, but you really need [2011’s “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)”] to be able to understand the middle third.”
Deft analysis like that is why Diehl had no problem convincing his superiors at GRU to let him teach the album. But it’s not like his students get to listen to it over and over again in class all semester.
Kendrick subtitled the album A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar, so Diehl would be remiss not to include at least one film in the syllabus. Sure enough, he chose John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, and, he says, “is good kid, m.A.A.d city, just not with quite as many episodes.” Diehl has also implemented works by James Joyce (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), James Baldwin (including the short stories “Going to Meet the Man” and “The Rockpile”), and Gwendolyn Brooks (poems including “The Mother” and “Kitchenette Building”). “All those writers,” he says, “are telling stories about escaping from the madness of the city but still being able to tell the stories of the city. I think that’s what Kendrick is doing as well.”
Despite the complexity of Kendrick’s lyrics, the most literary part of the album might be the skits. “The skits with his mom and dad on voicemail,” Diehl says, “seem so real because [Kendrick] allowed them to be themselves, and they still have a lot of concern for their son. You get to the end of ‘Real’ and his dad is saying, ‘Anyone can carry a gun, but being real is God. Being real is carrying responsibility for yourself.’ [The album is] a starting point for a long discussion about the inner city, and about violence and especially gang violence, and young black males and why they’re plighted different from their white, Asian, and Hispanic brethren.
“The running theme about trying to rise above the status quo in Compton [is] what I’ve envisioned the whole class to be about. What everyone in society needs to see is [that] these are real people. They’re in a war zone. It may not look like Baghdad or Kabul, but there are police helicopters flying over these neighborhoods every day. There are SWAT teams breaking down doors every day. That’s a life that most people, including me, are not accustomed to at all. But it’s still America and [these people] are citizens.”
Frankly, Compton is way too notorious for a place with a population under 100,000, and you can start to grasp the impact of the bloodshed if you explore a tool on The Los Angeles Times‘ website called The Homicide Report. You can do this with any area of Los Angeles County, but with Compton, there comes a heightened sense of stagnation: These things aren’t getting resolved.
Out of the non-GKMC works studied in Diehl’s course, Boyz n the Hood most resembles GKMC. Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and his girlfriend Brandi (Nia Long) are united in being sick and tired of everything that plagues their South Los Angeles, but whereas she seems to accept it for what it is, he’s vengeful. Ricky (Morris Chestnut) has an outlet in football, and his running speed comes to be a metaphor for the stranglehold of the violence. Doughboy (Ice Cube) is Ricky’s pessimistic older brother, losing faith in God and generally shaking his fist at the world between sips of his 40.
The film is now a classic, and because of it, many GKMC listeners had a vivid idea of what Compton is like going into the album. It also makes Kendrick’s situation more vivid. In calling himself a good kid — in those words — Kendrick elevated himself above the stereotype of the young, black, male Comptonite. Two questions follow: How has he accomplished this? And can he keep it up?
“i”, the polarizing, Isley Brothers-sampling Kendrick single that may or not be on his upcoming album, has been described as his “Happy”. Personally, I like the song, although I usually prefer his grittier work. My favorite Kendrick song is the Jay Rock- and Anna Wise-featuring “Money Trees”, which, like “Backseat Freestyle” off GKMC, only reveals itself to be as smart as it is in the context of the album. On its own, it can sound like arrogant robbery-rap, plain and simple: “Me and my niggas tryna get it, ya bish/ Hit the house lick, tell me is you wit it, ya bish?/ Home invasion was persuasive/ From nine to five I know it’s vacant, ya bish.”
Ultimately, a sense of purpose unites “i”, “Money Trees”, and the rest of Kendrick’s material to date, whether it’s with a story of young love, an anecdote of gang violence, or a humorous skit. With “i”, Kendrick is seconding a Hunter S. Thompson quote, though with a more personal bent: “Good news is rare these days, and every glittering ounce of it should be cherished and hoarded and worshipped and fondled like a priceless diamond.” Whether bringing good news or bad, Kendrick is just tryna get it.
Reviews: 17 Releases From August and September
Brian Fresco and Tree – SoulMoney EP
Brian Fresco and Tree, both of Chicago, sound like realists, guys who seem content to crank out songs whether or not any of them stick commercially. Fresco takes the majority of the rapping on the SoulMoney EP, which takes its name from his Save Money camp and Tree’s self-explanatory “soultrap” production sound. Tree, meanwhile, takes the mic here and there, notably on standouts “Rose” and “My Niggas”, but he mainly handles the production, chirp-ifying a vocal sample on that intro and wrangling up funky peals of guitar on “Take a Breath”. Fresco test-drives some Auto-Tune for the Lil Durk-esque “On My Soul”, but usually, he gets by on being himself, making tongue-in-cheek murder-rap threats and twisting syllables every which way. –Michael Madden
DJ Mustard – 10 Summers
DJ Mustard has basically defined the sound of LA’s pop-rap scene, his signature sound a hybrid of bass-heavy music suitable for both giggin’ and jerkin’; it could be considered hyphy if it weren’t so SoCal. 10 Summers is billed as his debut album, but that distinction might as well go to YG’s My Krazy Life — one of the best albums of the year and one primarily produced by Mustard. More than any other rapper here, YG is comfortable over this style of production, and his chemistry with Mustard shows, but the beats are straightforward enough that other rappers can find their lane, too. Mustard allocates time to other local talent like Nipsey Hussle, Dom Kennedy, Jay 305, and Ty Dolla $ign, alongside national acts like 2 Chainz, Rick Ross, and Wiz Khalifa. In the end, Mustard is at the mercy of these artists, the ones who turn his beats into full-fledged songs. Given that he’s one of the best and most well-received producers in hip-hop right now, though, none of the rappers phone it in with their verses; they value his status as a hitmaker. DJ Mustard is great, and he’ll be remembered for defining the sound of an era, but this project could’ve been improved if he let his own production skills stand on their own and get experimental rather than aiming for a string of pop-rap hits that don’t fully fit that bill. –Will Hagle
G-Unit – The Beauty of Independence EP
It’s been six years since the G-Unit camp, headed by 50 Cent, released their sophomore album, Terminate on Sight, but it feels like even longer on account of the ugly breakup that followed. The Beauty of Independence is the group’s first release as a group since disbanding (and since adding Young Money throwaway Kidd Kidd to the mix), and it’s a solid reintroduction to the distinctive voices offered, but it’s weird to hear Young Buck rap something like, “I really don’t do no conversatin’, no call waitin’/ I know y’all hating, I’m cool with it” on a song called “I Don’t Fuck With You”, given his history with phone calls and 50 Cent. Lloyd Banks’ entire verse on “Changes” feels like a piercing side eye to the G-Unit general. That’s a microcosm of the entire EP: lots of legitimate rapping with odd context and even odder subliminal subtext. –Sheldon Pearce
Homeboy Sandman – Hallways
Queens MC Homeboy Sandman fell one semester shy of completing two different graduate degrees, and more recently, he’s written about music and other culture for The Huffington Post and Gawker. But he’s not particularly academic in his brand of indie rap. Though little to nothing about it suggests “2014,” Hallways, his second full-length for Stones Throw, sounds as fresh as anything he’s done, and it’s as witty too: “The streets aren’t paved with gold/ At least they paved though, ya know?” Sand asks on the sardonic “America, the Beautiful”. Even though he works with several producers here (as opposed to his one-producer releases), the album is cohesive enough, with primary colors brightening knockers like Jonwayne’s “America, the Beautiful” and calmer tracks like “Unraveling”, which is backed by Dutch composer and lute player Jozef Van Wissem (!). –Michael Madden
Jeezy – Seen It All: The Autobiography
Seen It All: The Autobiography binds some of the strongest production Jeezy has ever rapped over, including the electric guitar and piano on opener “1/4 Block”, the eerie synth riffs on “Holy Ghost”, and the celestial soul of “Beautiful” (which features Game and Rick Ross, formerly one of Jeezy’s nemeses). However, that only begins to explain what makes the Atlanta veteran’s fifth album his best to date. Now 36 (which at least partly explains why he officially scratched the “Young” in “Young Jeezy” last year), he sounds more assured of his leading position in street rap than ever. After all, he was the “first to tell you motherfuckers “Trap or Die” (in reference to his 2005 mixtape). The immaculate title track, where Jeezy defines his dedication by rhyming “Benzo” with “ten toes,” is justified as a Jay Z collabo about the transition from dealing to dazzling. Jeezy’s getting serious mileage from that combination, writing about his ascent with the hunger of his “Let’s Get It/Sky’s the Limit” self. –Michael Madden
Jet Life – Audio D
Curren$y and the rest of Jet Life have reveled in lush production, canvases on which they can splash stoner mantras and smooth hooks. Audio D, the clique’s latest mixtape, continues that tradition, but only to a degree — these beats feel trimmer than most of their work, with the guitar, strings, and horns calling less attention to themselves. Though a couple of these songs approach the six-minute mark (including the Curren$y highlight “A Lil Sumthin (Come Up Big on Em)”), most fall short of three minutes. Appropriately, these rappers are quick to pump out quotable lines, with Curren$y capturing the gold as usual: “Old rap money still comin’/ Old rap mogul tried to steal somethin’ from me/ I thought that was funny.” The Westbrook to his Durant is Young Roddy, who brings high energy to “Playa Stats” and “Trying”, while Le$ shines on “Jackin 4 Beats”. –Michael Madden
Lecrae – Anomaly
Lecrae is the Christian rapper at the moment, and yet he rarely makes his faith obvious on Anomaly. Is the album, his seventh to date and first Billboard 200 No. 1, compromised because he’s downplaying his claim to fame? Maybe. Apart from that, it’s a legitimately solid album with ambitious production and bold hooks. “Nuthin” is the best example of Lecrae’s ability to put together a track that’s both religious (in its message that some kind of change needs to happen) and secular (the beat is basically a DJ Mustard imitation). The “Audemars” hook on “Timepiece” is enough to seal the song as the album’s catchiest, and the rest of the track is evidence of Lecrae’s ability to imbue his music with perfectly human worries and hopes. –Michael Madden
Lil Bibby – Free Crack 2
Lyricism and Chicago drill nihilism are two sides of a coin, and Lil Bibby has his foot within both descriptors. That’s not to say he’s performing a perpetual balancing act. What he lacks in poetics he more than makes up for with bluntness and a gravelly, beyond-his-years voice that calls concrete realities into existence. That helps make his Free Crack 2 collaboration with Kevin Gates, “We Are Strong”, a visceral highlight: “I can tell these young boys ain’t got no heart in ’em/ Niggas funny, you don’t even like to talk with ’em,” and that’s what grounds the mixtape through the whizzing trap production and soulful turns (“What You Live For”). The mixtape’s main goal is uncovering the dangers of Chicago’s jungle — exposition over humanism — whether it’s via sticky hooks (“I Be On It”) or brutal details (“My big brother prolly be somewhere up in the feds/ My lil brother prolly be somewhere in jail or dead”). This sometimes backfires, as the project is mostly guided by a money-driven worldview. Regardless, you will be thrilled. –Brian Josephs
Lil Kim – Hard Core
Maybe it’s the title’s homage to her 1996 debut or maybe it’s the countless, tiresome allusions to Biggie Smalls, but it feels painfully obvious that Lil Kim has a longing for her glory days, and it’s even more evident that she wants us to remember them, too. Kim feels the constant need to remind us she’s still here, perhaps to soothe her own bruised ego, and she does so primarily by targeting those created in her image, specifically You Know Who. Hard Core isn’t so much a return to form as it is a 30-minute pat on the back. To that end, one might argue that most rap mixtapes are, too, but when listening to “Kimmie Blanco”, “Trendsetter”, or “Whenever You See”, it’s hard not to feel like it isn’t all just one big attention grab. The rapping is spotty throughout over a strange assortment of beats, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to justify keeping up with this living legend. The further removed she gets from the time she had “it,” the more desperately she pines to get it back. –Sheldon Pearce
Mick Jenkins – The Water[s]
As the story goes, Chicago’s Mick Jenkins started rapping because a competition at the small Alabama college he was attending offered the winner Beats headphones. He didn’t win (he got second place), but it ignited a flame that extended from his love of writing poetry. His second mixtape, The Water[s], is full of thematic nuggets, mainly the healing functions of water. It’s a deft, highly intricate tape complete with evocative songs that go from danceable (“THC”) to highlighting his rapid-fire flow (the cloud-rap of “The Waters”) to Section.80-style introspection (“Jazz”) to boasting his slurred, flamboyant cadence (“Canada Dry”). He’s remarkably versatile, seamlessly bouncing from aggressive, baritone raps to sung vocal hooks. In interviews and directly on “Martyrs”, Jenkins has positioned himself directly opposite artists like Chief Keef and other members of Chicago’s drill scene. Sure enough, his ambition is comparable to Chance the Rapper’s, but with more self-seriousness and urgency. –Josh Terry
Statik Selektah – What Goes Around
Massachusetts’ Statik Selektah is one of the more talented producers working today, using unique samples and crafting memorable beats for a number of different artists. This guy must have the biggest Rolodex in the rap game, bringing out an insane posse of features for his newest record, What Goes Around, including Snoop Dogg, Black Thought, Ab-Soul, and Freddie Gibbs. It’s a concept mixtape if ever such a thing existed, created almost entirely from jazz samples and inspired by an interaction Statik had with Kanye West during the MBDTF recording sessions, in which Kanye remarked that “jazz is dead.” I’d argue that jazz is finding a strong niche in hip-hop right now and is healthier than ever thanks to people like BadBadNotGood, Flying Lotus, and Statik Selektah, with this album standing out as proof that jazz is as viable in hip-hop as ever before. –Pat Levy
Swet Shop Boys – Swet Shop EP
Swet Shop Boys is the culmination of years of different cultures coming together, not just rappers from the UK and US but of Indian and Pakistani descent working together and putting out one of the better EPs of the year. Heems (formerly of Das Racist) and British actor/rapper Riz Ahmed (aka Riz MC) culled a wealth of influences for the four-song effort, citing several different native languages, poetry, and rap as important to the genesis of the project. “Benny Lava” (produced by Ryan Hemsworth) and“Urvasi” (produced by Lushlife) are both standout tracks that touch on Indian cuisine, the perception of men of color with white women, and what it’s like to be a minority in a big city like NYC or London. It’s a serious EP with a splash of Heems’ trademark wit: “Syphilis experiments, death to the Tuskegee man/ Somewhere in New York they say death to the squeegee man.” For those with a narrow scope when it comes to hip-hop, do yourself a favor and let the Swet Shop Boys educate you. –Pat Levy
Travi$ Scott — Days Before Rodeo
On “Days Before Rodeo: The Prayer”, Travi$ Scott raps, “After three number one albums would’ve thought I’d feel amazin’.” Even though he produced tracks on Kanye West’s Yeezus, Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, and Wale’s The Gifted last year, the 22-year-old Houston native is still antsy for more chances to prove himself. His sophomore mixtape, Days Before Rodeo, picks up where his promising Owl Pharaoh project left off. Where his debut showed his darkly shaded production, Scott takes a backseat as a producer, letting other beatmakers (including Lex Luger and Metro Boomin) handle the majority of the tracks. As a result, Days Before Rodeo feels more of the moment, with trendy guest spots from Young Thug (“Skyfall” and “Mamacita”) and Migos (“Sloppy Toppy”) occasionally overshadowing the young MC. Still, $cott shines with zealous and commanding wordplay on tracks like “Days Before Rodeo: The Prayer” and “Zombies”. While he still has a ways to go to fulfill his potential as a Kanye protege, Days Before Rodeo is a promising gap-filler before his debut album, Rodeo. –Josh Terry
Twista – Dark Horse
Twista raps fast, but few acknowledge the rapper’s skill aside from his technical quickness. On Dark Horse, he acknowledges his lifetime of underappreciation yet still strives for prominence, alluding to the album’s title by comparing himself to a Ray Allen or a Mike Miller. In the first song, he admits he’s bitter when he’s not mentioned alongside the greats. But if the masses are ignoring Twista, that’s not stopping him from trying to garner their attention. Now 40, his typical breathlessness has an urgent energy to it, like he’s trying to prove his talent and prominence despite being well past his prime. Songs like “Devil’s Angel” play like they were unearthed from Twista’s hardcore underground past, while others like “Getting Paper” recall his more R&B and pop-oriented days. “Crisis”, featuring Tech N9ne, is a fast-rappin’-ass-rappers-rappin’-fast track like Tech’s “Worldwide Choppers”. Wiz Khalifa appears on the weed anthem “Burnin” because of course he does, and Twista almost sounds hypocritical rapping at 150 words per second about smoking and riding slow. The catchiest track here is closer “Throwin’ My Money”, which benefits from an R. Kelly hook the way any song could. Twista is smart to acknowledge his outsider status on the album, from its title to the words that fly by in his verses. It makes you think about how good he’s always been, Dark Horse being no exception. –Will Hagle
Ty Dolla $ign – $ign Language
On his Beach House series of mixtapes, L.A. singer/rapper Ty Dolla $ign wove in and out of sexily sung hooks, lush and syrupy production (usually from Ty himself, his D.R.U.G.S crew, and DJ Mustard), and becoming progressively more addictive. His latest, $ign Language, might be his best, thriving on the same hedonism and hyper-sexual bedroom jams that are Dolla $ign’s bread and butter. “Stretch/She Better” channels R. Kelly at his most aggressively seductive, while “Lord Knows” features decent verses from Rick Ross and Dom Kennedy. On “Issue”, on the other hand, producer FKi recycles the same Les Sins-sampling beat he used on Rome Fortune’s “Grind” to less stellar results. A high point comes toward the end, where Dolla $ign’s incarcerated-for-life younger brother TC sings a lovely hook on “Big TC in Too Deep”. Recorded in prison, the tinny quality of the record adds to its gravitas, adding anticipation for Dolla $ign’s debut, Free TC. With his trademark abundance of ear-candy hooks, sexualized vigor, and adventurous production, Dolla $ign remains one of the most exciting singer/rapper combos. –Josh Terry
Wara from the NBHD – Kidnapped
Finally, a project that really feels like an extension of the artist who made it. Kidnapped, the newest mixtape from Wara from the NBHD is brilliant, produced and written entirely by the Atlanta-via-Brooklyn rapper. The beats are either brooding or bouncing, often built around a piano chord or a simple drum beat. They truly sound unlike most other beats that up-and-comers are willing to try out, with key changes and hooks that don’t even come in until the verses are over, an unorthodox tactic for sure. The subject matter is all over the place, but being real is a dominant theme, like on “Slangin”, where Wara’s brother educates him on the dangers of getting involved in dealing drugs. “Trying to be like me, well that ain’t gonna get you far/ It’s better things to do, plus you got handles, play basketball.” I’m interested to see where Wara goes after this tape, because he’s clearly proved that he has a knack for both the production and lyrical side of the art form. The kid from the NBHD (neighborhood) is moving on up. –Pat Levy
Young Thug – 1017 Thug 3 (The Finale)
1017 Thug 3, the final remnants of Young Thug‘s stint with Gucci Mane’s 1017 Brick Squad imprint, is the equivalent of trying to get the very last use out of a tube of toothpaste. This is very clearly a last-ditch effort to make good on what remaining Thug files are left on the Brick Squad hard drive. It’s a shoddy attempt to piece together a record without its architect, whose stock continues to skyrocket regardless. Thug contracts the Mustard virus going around rap right now for “LA Swag” and steps into his stride for “Fuck Ya Girl”, but there simply isn’t enough to save this release from the truth hanging over its head: These leftover tracks probably weren’t ever meant to see the light of day. –Sheldon Pearce
Video of the Month
Lil Dicky – “Lemme Freak”
I had never heard of Lil Dicky until the video for “Lemme Freak” had me looking through his entire catalog almost immediately. The synergy between audio and video has never been stronger, and Dicky is officially an auteur when it comes to rap videos. The bit between Dicky and the bartender is gold, the reference to Bee Movie is as top-notch as notches get, and “I don’t know if you’re aware that you’ve been throwing out my shoes” has gotten an audible laugh from everyone I’ve shown this video to, which at this point is well into the double digits. This is the kind of shit I wanna show my mom even though I know she’ll hate it because I like it so much, like Action Bronson songs or Wet Hot American Summer. In all seriousness, this will likely be my favorite video of the year. –Pat Levy
Cam’ron is a modern-day renaissance man. He gets boosters boosting. He gets computers ‘puting. He has one of the biggest personalities in rap. He is a style icon and an accomplished street film director. He does it all. Lately, he’s managed to get the old gang back together after a tumultuous period of internal chaos among Dipset members, and he’s been making some new friends as well, namely A-Trak. More recently, Killa Cam has been on a tear, releasing a new EP every month via his 1st of the Month series (the fourth one came out as of this writing), which seems to be a precursor to his first solo album since 2009’s Crime Pays. In response to new music from the Dipset general, we‘ve taken a look back at the bulk of his catalog. Gear up as we delve into one of the more fascinating discographies of the 21st century.
Confessions of Fire (1998)
Family Ties (Dipset Guest Appearances): The ties between Cam’ron and Jim Jones extend far beyond their relationship as members of the heralded Dipset camp. The two rappers are childhood friends, and their bond is nearly familial. This is perhaps best illustrated by their very first collaboration on Cam’s debut, “Me, My Moms, & Jimmy”, which featured verses from Jim and, yes, Cam’s mother, Fredricka. It’s a family affair.
Where I Know You From (Non-Dipset Guest Appearances): In the summer of ’98, Usher was less than a year removed from the massive success of his sophomore album, My Way, and somehow Jermaine Dupri managed to get Cam a feature for Confessions of Fire. “Feels Good”, the resulting collaboration, is a groovy tune with contemporary R&B overtones that revels in its own leisure. Neither artist is outside his wheelhouse, which is surprising given the unorthodox nature of the union. This would be the first and last partnership between the two.
Do It Again (Most Replayable Song): Before Dipset and the Diplomats became a collective of young, talented trailblazers, Cam’ron was a member of Children of the Corn, a Harlem supergroup also featuring Big L and Ma$e. The latter was featured on two records from Cam’s debut, including the lead single, but the best collab proved to be “We Got It”, which would’ve been at home on Ma$e’s Harlem World. It’s infectious, a time capsule of late ’90s flair.
What’s Really Good: Confessions of Fire’s best moments include “Prophecy”, which could easily be reworked into a Babyface song, “D Rugs”, which utilizes extended metaphor to describe a mother’s drug addiction, and the street ballad “Me & My Boo”, bolstered by a guest verse from Charli Baltimore.
This Is What I Do (Standout Lyrics): “Yo father, where you wanna start? How I love ladies/ Or how I’m slug crazy/ Or how I’m a thug maybe, from a drug baby/ I need more than just a slight high/ I mean father I’m blind out my right eye/ Don’t mourn and cry/ Cause we were born to die” (“Confessions”)
Beautiful Noise (Best Production): The Jermaine Dupri production “Rockin’ and Rollin’’ is super-nostalgic and makes you pine for So So Def’s greatest hits. If Cam’ron had made an entire album of songs just like this one — minus the singsong hook — it’d definitely be a hip-pop smash on its way to shipping three million copies.
Bigger Picture: Confessions of Fire is actually a very solid debut, a borderline jiggy rap album that enlists high profile features without feeling forced. Cam’ron does some of his most technical rapping on this album, but his signature wit and charm shouldn’t be undersold; he is as charismatic as ever.
Family Ties: Jim Jones (credited as Jimmy Jones) uses his verse on “Do It Again” to both endorse and lament street life as a means to stack funds. An 18-year-old Juelz Santana, meanwhile, begins to build his buzz on “Double Up and “All the Chickens”.
Where I Know You From: Worthwhile spots from a couple New Yorkers: Ol’ Dirty Bastard is fittingly rabid on “Violence”, while Prodigy appears on “Losin’ Weight”. Destiny’s Child, who were beginning work on Survivor at the time, add soul and melody to “Do It Again”.
Do It Again: Yes, “Do It Again” is the catchiest song on the album, with the breezy piano melodies and Destiny’s Child’s chorus making sure of that.
What’s Really Good: “Violence” is hammering proto-crunk. Cam displays virtuosic use of the word fuck, while Ol’ Dirty Bastard sounds as singular as ever, adding another solid cameo to a career that would end too soon.
This Is What I Do: “Be on 54th, whole clique backing me/ All that click clackery takes your wrist wrappery/ I ain’t no rapper, B, I skeet Uzis/ And I can’t act, turned down three movies” (“That’s Me”)
Beautiful Noise: “Come Kill Me”, produced by Digga, is a sinister, RZA-style piano tapper that proves Cam would’ve been at home on Mobb Deep’s The Infamous five years earlier.
Bigger Picture: Cam had charisma from the start of his career, but counting S.D.E., he wasn’t at his peak yet. He wasn’t intimidating because he already had that effortlessly authoritative voice; he was intimidating because he yelled things like, “Die, bitch nigga! Bitch nigga, die!” again and again.
Come Home with Me (2002)
Family Ties: Juelz Santana appears on five of the first eight songs here, while Freekey Zekey and Jim Jones also appear in the same space; consequently, the first half of the album almost feels like a Dipset project.
Where I Know You From: Jay Z endorses Cam, a Roc-A-Fella signee, on the Just Blaze production “Welcome to New York City”. Fellow Roc stars Beanie Sigel and Memphis Bleek are also here, as is Daz Dillinger, 10 years removed from his work on The Chronic.
Do It Again: The singsong, Toya-assisted chorus of “Hey Ma” might go down as the most memorable moment in Cam’s career — even though it might be the least characteristic moment of his career, too.
What’s Really Good: “Welcome to New York City” sounds like a coming-out party — call it flashbulb rap — and Jay’s verse might be the best on the album (“At the Knick game, big chain in all my splendor/ Next to Spike if you pan left to right”).
This Is What I Do: “Getting robbed, dog, is not my game/ My nigga hopped out the van, cocked that thang/ Reversed the situation, popped his chain/ Be happy we ain’t pop his brain” (“Dead or Alive”)
Beautiful Noise: “Welcome to New York City” is one of the most dynamic Just Blaze productions of the era, a head-bobber with propulsive drums and piano.
Bigger Picture: Come Home with Me isn’t the best example of Cam’s toughness, but it’s a consistent record that brought him more fans, who’d fully see what he was capable of in the next two years.
The Diplomats – Diplomatic Immunity (2003)
Family Ties: Juelz Santana opened the self-assured “I’m Ready” with a grand proclamation: “Cam gon’ make me a star/ I’m gon’ make him a million,” he rapped confidently, and though it didn’t quite work out that way, there’s still something special about his linking with Cam and Cam linking up with the Roc. The chemistry is magnetic and obviously so, even now. Diplomatic Immunity was Juelz Santana’s coming out party, but no moment typified that more than Barbara Mason backing his play in a high-pitched squeal.
Where I Know You From: There are only three features from non-Diplomats on Diplomatic Immunity, and one of them, DMX, doesn’t even have a verse. Another is just a rework of a regional classic. The last is Freeway, and though he clearly has the competitive advantage, he isn’t the default winner just for having a full verse on an original record with “My Love”; he also gave us the gem “I need a woman to bake, cook pies in the winter then diet/ Give her the weight.”
Do It Again: There is only one correct answer, and that answer is “Dipset Anthem”, which is named appropriately. There are few songs in the Dipset canon that rival its true sense of ingroup unity. It is a microcosm of the entire movement.
What’s Really Good: There are far too many highlights to name them all, but the choice few that jump out as clear-cut standouts over a decade later are the Just Blaze-produced “Built This City”, the glam rock-juiced “Ground Zero” with its chilling metal riffs, and the Santana solo cut “More Than Music”.
This Is What I Do: “I’m on the west side of Chicago, lookin’ for a bust-down/ To make me put my two arms up, touchdown!/ You stay in touch now, but when I touch down/ I’m like buckshot shorty, you better duck down” (“Dipset Anthem”)
Beautiful Noise: There are few samples of the soul revivalist Roc-A-Fella era better than Just Blaze’s “I Really Mean It”, which backs boisterous horns and a pitched yelp with punching percussion that doubles down on intensity and fervor.
Bigger Picture: In hindsight, with over 10 years separating us from its initial release, it is pretty safe to say that Diplomatic Immunity is a classic. It has aged like a fine wine and its influence remains embedded in modern rap culture.
The Diplomats – Diplomatic Immunity II (2004)
Family Ties: 40 Cal. and JR Writer appear here, whereas they were absent from the first Diplomatic Immunity. “S.A.N.T.A.N.A.” is, of course, Juelz’s moment.
Where I Know You From: Four months removed from Tha Carter, Lil Wayne appears on “Push It”, a remix of the Salt-N-Pepa song of the same name.
Do It Again: “Crunk Muzik” epitomizes Dipset’s true specialty: blaring fight rap. “Now this here is that bomb diggy/ Diggy dang, the dons with me,” starts Juelz, and the song already has enough momentum that the rest of the song could be full of similar gibberish and still be a classic.
What’s Really Good: Despite early mic exchanges between Cam, Juelz, and Unkasa, “Take ‘Em to Church” is really Cam’s song, a declaration of his status as a rising Harlem legend.
This Is What I Do: “Long as the world spin, that Bentley with the engine and the trunk from Berlin, I’m curled in” (“So Free”)
Beautiful Noise: “Melalin” is built on an unshakeable nylon-string guitar loop. It’s the polar opposite of “Crunk Muzik”, but it’s just as addictive.
Bigger Picture: Cam may have a penchant for pop and R&B sounds in his solo work, but with his boys, he’s more likely to rap over punishing production. You can’t go wrong with Diplomatic Immunity II or the alpha version, though this one is shorter and tighter.
Purple Haze (2004)
Family Ties: Purple Haze is relatively light on Dipset appearances, with Juelz appearing on “More Gangsta Music” and “Take ‘Em to Church”, Freekey Zekey on “Hey Lady”, and JR Writer on “Shake”.
Where I Know You From: Kanye West guests on and co-produces “Down and Out”, while his fellow Chicago native Twista appears on “Adrenaline”.
Do It Again: “Get Down” and “Down and Out” are both soulful and successful for similar reasons, but the first song is catchier due to the clarity of each element — “Down and Out” is just busier.
What’s Really Good: The urgent, cinematic strings on “Leave Me Alone, Pt. 2” go as well with Cam’s booming flow as anything before or since.
This Is What I Do: “Holly, Lilly, to Kelly all spent ones on the telly/ (And what else) And I got hella gear/ My earring is nice, the price, three town homes in Delaware” (“Bubble Music”)
Beautiful Noise: The vocal sample and crisp drums of “Down and Out” combine for a silky beat with a soul of its own.
Bigger Picture: Purple Haze is Cam’s masterpiece. It’s more muscular than anything he’s done, but also, it’s his plushest album, full of soul samples and other pristine sonics.
Killa Season (2006)
Family Ties: 40 Cal. is one of the less heralded members of the Dipset ranks, falling somewhere between JR Writer and Freekey Zekey, but his appearance on “Triple Up” stands as the sole testament to his existence within the group. He rhymes “white jury” with “white jewelry” and it’s the apex of his brief career.
Where I Know You From: Cam’ron caught Lil Wayne for a feature just as Weezy was hitting his prime, but even he couldn’t have anticipated the show-stealing verse Wayne would deliver on the raunchy “Suck It or Not”. “Chilling like a scarecrow looking for some brain” remains one of the great bars about fellatio.
Do It Again: “Leave You Alone” is vintage Dipset music: high-pitched vocal samples with clattering drum programming and slow flowing. Unsurprisingly, it is in this moment on Killa Season that Killa Cam feels most at home.
What’s Really Good: The album’s best listens include the Jay Z diss “You Gotta Love It”, the braggadocious, operatic “Girls, Cash, Clothes”, and “Something New”, which finds Cam’ron trading cat-caller bars back-and-forth with Hell Rell.
This Is What I Do: “My flow is Novocain, my bars is hurricanes/ I got hella cane, MAC in the melon range/ Hop out and shells exchange/ I wanna see these niggas die, make they mom feel hella pain” (“Get Em Daddy”)
Beautiful Noise: “We Make Change” samples the vocals and strings of Ronnie Dyson’s “Girl Don’t Come” and it is soulful and cinematic all at once. The elements sound so different, as if they’re from two completely distinctive pieces of music, but they complement each other well.
Bigger Picture: Killa Season falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum on the list of Cam’ron albums, featuring really great records and really terrible ones. But despite its peaks and valleys, it’s Dipset flamboyance at its finest.
Crime Pays (2009)
Family Ties: The only Dipset feature on Crime Pays comes courtesy of 40 Cal. (because the album was released at the height of internal tension between Cam, Jim Jones, and Juelz Santana), and the verse isn’t very good. To be frank, the song isn’t very good, either. It really makes you miss Jim Jones.
Where I Know You From: The rest of the features on Crime Pays come courtesy of Lady Lodi, C.O., Sky-Lyn, Byrd Lady, and Skitzo, none of whom I’d ever heard of before. “You Know What’s Up”, featuring C.O. and Sky-Lyn, is particularly weak. “Cookies-n-Apple Juice”, featuring Byrd Lady, isn’t much better. But at least the latter has OK raps.
Do It Again: There are more skippable tracks than replayable ones on Crime Pays, but the most tolerable among them is “Curve”, which showcases Cam in hilarious form. His flow is impressively carefree.
What’s Really Good: The bright spots are few and far between on Crime Pays, but “Get It Get It” and “My Job”, Cam’ron’s anthem for the working stiffs, are relatively solid. “Homicide” also gets a nod here on the strength of its intro alone: “Niggas said my car’s the same color as fluoride … what the fuck color is fluoride, nigga?!” Priceless.
This Is What I Do: “K9 come, then the 9 spray/ My girl’s toe ring, that’s 55K/ Crack in 4B, Coke in 5A/ Dope in 8F, the hos in 9J” (“Where I Know You From”)
Beautiful Noise: There are three AraabMuzik beats on Crime Pays, and they are marginally better than the rest of the beats. That said, they’re basically just a tacky brand of synth rap that shouldn’t have been exported from the MPC. “Curve” is the best one.
Bigger Picture: Crime Pays is far and away Cam’ron’s worst album. It’s a boring listen the entire way through with underwhelming credits. Cam’ron’s magnetism is the only thing that prevents this LP from being insufferable. –Sheldon Pearce