Twice back atcha

Three years ago this March, Cam'ron almost stopped by the photo shoot for the cover story I was writing on his Diplomats crew. It was the first spring day after a hard NYC winter and all the kids were shooting hoops, riding quads and posing for pictures at a Harlem-area park known as Battlegrounds. The air was celebratory — and not just with the multitude of blunts that Jim Jones, Juelz Santana and crew were blazing — but with the rejuvenating warmth of the first sunshine in months.

After hours of delay, and with the photographer battling a quickly setting sun, the rapper finally arrived at the playground. The bubbling jubilance tangibly turned into nervous energy. To the kids in that park, Cam was bigger than just about anyone. Maybe he, too, felt that shift, because Cam'ron turned around and drove straight back to New Jersey. Crowds can be scary after you've been shot through both arms, and he was just a few months removed from one such incident.

Cam'ron hasn't been seen much since.

He released a weird YouTube flick of himself in his boxers in front of a drained motel pool. And there was a double-CD mixtape that was as unbearably inconsistent as it was occasionally brilliant. He said some sly shit out the side of his mouth about a few prominent rappers in random interviews. He sampled Journey. But when "Killa Cam" is on his A-game, that kind of stuff happens several times a week.

Meanwhile Jones, Dipset's capo, carried the brand name until he, unfortunately, became a brand unto himself. The third leg in the crew's triangle, Santana, talked about a lot of projects without releasing any of them until he finally called Cam'ron out as a career cock-blocker. The Diplomats — once New York's most promising group since the rise of hip-hop in the South, one made in Cam's own image — were pretty much disbanded, dissolved into half-hearted shout-outs and wishful thinking from hanger-on weed carriers who no longer had anywhere to hang or weed to carry. Dipset was, and is, dead.

If Cam'ron weren't such a bizarre character, I don't think this article would exist. The music world has always been fascinated by a weird artist, but Cam'ron was the first rapper to turn weird into gangster. He made the color pink kinda hood. He kept "the boosters boostin' and the computers 'putin'." He sincerely rhymed about his struggle with irritable bowel syndrome (most notably in a song aptly titled "I.B.S."). But it wasn't just his absurdity that got the computers 'putin', Cam'ron's cadence — where and how his words hit the beat — was always original. And the dude is funny as fuck.

Now the funny is back, and it's back for the peoples' sake. He has a new album, Crime Pays, allegedly dropping April 21. He's on the cover of that month's XXL magazine. He's doing random interviews. But, most important, he released a straight-to-YouTube video for his album's single, "I Hate My Job."

In what is hopefully the first of many low-budget music videos for Crime Pays, "I Hate My Job" is as real as hip-hop videos have ever gotten without trying to prove such a stature. It's Cam'ron in his socks fighting with a normal-looking girl in what must be his own wood-panel-cabinet—furnished New Jersey kitchen. It's Cam as the only person still reading the newspaper classifieds or wearing beanies to job interviews in this forever- receding economy.

"I Hate My Job," as a song, is much more subtle. Over a cheerful piano tickle, it's the most honest reflection of the daily grind since Bruce Springsteen was a man of the people. His understudy, Santana, may have said it first, but Cam'ron is "right back atcha/Twice back atcha/Like Christ back atcha."

Only a few people know whether Crime Pays will live up to Cam's most heralded work, 2004's Purple Haze, or even the potential of its lead single. But everything seems to be in line for one of the year's best records.

Purple Haze, along with releases from the Clipse, ushered in an era when college kids stopped listening to underground "intelligent" hip-hop and chose the blissful ignorance of Killa Cam and company instead. The 20-year-olds discovering themselves at educational institutes turned off Aesop Rock and Sage Francis for the irony of Cam's crazy lyrics. But his charms eventually got the better of him, and for many the ironic appreciation turned into genuine reverence for rhymes that aren't far from the absurdities of Ghostface Killah. Is there, after all, any difference between "Fuck at high speeds/Strawberry kiwi" and "I live in a zoo/I run scandals with savages"?

Killa Season, Cam'ron's 2006 Purple Haze follow-up, tried extra hard to recapture the magic of its predecessor, but mostly disappointed. Perhaps he was aware of his expanded audience, perhaps he was just lazy or perhaps the accompanying feature film distracted from the music. (That Killa Season, the movie, features a scene in which its lead urinates on a man while screaming "No homo" is distracting for everyone.) The album's highlight was "Touch It or Not," featuring a very pre—Katie Couric Lil Wayne. The menacing anthem (and somewhat disturbing ode to fellatio) felt like a co-sign for Wayne among the Pitchfork crowd. Weezy's relentless string of mixtapes, guest appearances and free MP3s was just starting to take off and in some way, Cam's acceptance has made way for Wayne's takeover.

If that weren't enough to root for the resurrection of Killa Cam, then the reasons for this disappearance might grease up the tear ducts. In a recent interview with Miss Info, the Hot 97 DJ and only journalist that anyone in Dipset really trusts, she asked Cam'ron himself the question that was on so many minds that it ended up on a grip of oversized T-shirts: "Where's Cam?"

"A lot of industry stuff spiraled back to back to back," he told Miss Info, "and during that time, my mother had three strokes in one day, back to back to back. She was paralyzed on the left side of her body, 90 percent. … I had to make sure my mom was good. You only get one mother."

Cam'ron went to Miami with his mother for rehabilitation, suddenly making those "Where's Cam?" tongue-in-cheek T's cold, even by hip-hop standards. She's back, "back in the hood," as Cam puts it, and Cam is rapping again. All is right with the world.

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