Music News

Cam'ron Is the Master of Overstatement

The critical narrative says that pelvic-thrusting rock stars are clueless actors. Even the kingliest of rock gods, people who understand better than most how to tickle an audience, tend to be noobishly ungraceful onscreen — can we get an "amen" from anyone who's seen The Wiz or KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park?

The unashamedly ridiculous Cam'ron, a rock star in spirit if nothing else, made his film debut with the miscalculated Killa Season in 2006. Cam played Flea, a Harlem crime lord/walking cartoon who conducted himself with less than superlative distinction, sometimes spinning into sadistic outbursts that involved pissing on people (the poetry of Killa Season was visceral, man). The straight-to-DVD flick couldn't have grossed more than a few grand — antithetic to Cam's oft-stated goal of mo' money, stupider swag — and critics were awfully hard on it. But in keeping with the throughline that unites most rock movies, Killa Season wasn't a vehicle for its star's actorly sophistication. It was a vehicle for Cam's command of rock 'n' roll's best friend: overblown overstatement.

A recurring motif in Cam's music is baldly obvious, intrepidly cheesy, too-perfect rock samples — he loves AOR sap more than The Killers. His mixtape cut "Just Us" (not a Monkees reference, sorrowfully) heisted the piano line from Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." A few years before that, he pulled off the mother of all undoables, gangstafying Starship's plastic 1985 hit "We Built This City." He sampled Sting not once, but twice (fucking twice! Sting!). He brought classic-rock cocksmanship to the Bon Jovi-repurposing "Wanted (Dead or Alive)." And on Purple Haze's "Down and Out," Cam pulled a particularly wicked descriptor out of his ass in describing his "1970s heroin flow" — a s/o to '70s cornball Jim Morrison?

Dignity preservation is as foreign a concept to Cam as it was to Morrison. He's made a fool of himself in his every public appearance of the past 15 years: wearing obscenely furry ushankas, refusing to wear neutral colors, rapping about sandals, incorrectly guessing what a GPA is, and saying things like "Why are we fighting over Robitussin?" and "Every loop on the fucking rosary is dancing." There's been a lot of speculation about whether Cam's village-idiot antics are real or just a genius marketing coup. He's a little too left-brained to carry out the latter — his rhymes ("Killa Cam, hustler, grinder, gorilla true/Oh my, chinchilla blue") aren't exactly calculated with surgical precision — but better not to speculate at all. All of Cam's clownishness is enacted in the name of killer entertainment. He learned what all good frontmen eventually learn: Rock stardom means throwing self-consciousness to the wind.

This is not to diminish Cam's increasingly canonical art. Many credit 2004's Purple Haze for inventing the "weirdo" subculture that has since churned out artists from Danny Brown to Flying Lotus to Riff Raff, among other crazies. The difference between Cam and his litter is that there was more to him than glazed-over, scatterbrained punchlines. He had atomically big beats and the songwriting IQ to pen actual pop choruses ("Dipset Anthem," "Welcome to New York City," the Cyndi Lauper-cribbing "Girls"). He didn't make headphone music.

The flamethrowing Harlem MC reunited with embittered ex-crewmates Jim Jones and Juelz Santana on 2010's "Salute," an evil, keyed-up club track with industrial synths. Cam has gotten away with so much that it seemed inevitable Lady Luck would bail on him sooner or later. Yet everything he touches seems to work somehow. On his last album, the awesome Crime Pays, he found his better half: AraabMUZIK, a producer as in love with goopy melisma and shameless cheese-rock dramatics as he is.

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M.T. Richards
Contact: M.T. Richards