Dean Van Nguyen plays razor tag.
What does Cameron Giles want out of life? The last time Killa put out a major solo album, Obama had just taken office and ER was still on the air. This is a guy with more careers than Barbie too, spending time flicking through movie scripts, functioning as one-half of a celebrity couple, and putting out such fashion accessories as high-end capes and an Ebola mask decorated with his own face that nobody owns unironically. If there’s a lesson to be taken from new mixtape The Program, though, it’s this: you never count out the true legends.
It’s not like Cam retired from music, of course. He’s spent the last few years dropping rough solo tapes from time to time. But a full-on Diplomats project never crystallized, while Cam has flip-flopped between teasing a sequel to Purple Haze and Killa Season, suggesting his vision for whatever the hell his next album turns out to be is as clear as the New York mist.
It’s been frustrating because the Harlem kid is still capable of greatness. Check out last year’s verse on Pete Rock and Smoke DZA’s “Moving Weight Pt. 1.” A rugged piece of crime drama that feels from the pen of David Simon, Cam mixed hustler storytelling with his famed tongue-twisting surrealism (“Bad bitches in the tub, tell ‘em they all luck-ay/ Grab me a condom, gave her the rubber duck-ay”) in the kind of scintillating fashion that makes him one of the greatest rappers to ever sashay out of Uptown.
Such flashes of greatness are studded throughout The Program, which dropped last month. Cam spits plenty of blistering bars on top of the kind of orchestral, compact, reduced-emphasis-on-bass beats—mostly forged by little-known producers—he’s always sounded comfortable on. The high points are wonderful and the writing is surprisingly personal. But there’s a lingering feeling that with just a few shades more motivation and concentration, Cam’ron could easily drop another classic.
Take opening track “It’s Killa.” Cam, still with that incredible eye for detail, goes all the way back to 1997, firing shots at Ma$e by recalling the story of when his then-ally was caught up in a situation with his girl’s boyfriend. Killa tells of receiving a desperate call from the ex-Murda Ma$e before packing his pistol in hand and rushing out to assist. For his troubles, Cam is tossed just $100.
“Told him straight up I ain’t feeling him,” he raps. “Let me curve this n***a ‘fore I end up killing him.” Positioned as track one presumably for maximum impact, his clinical, unemotional presentation of the embarrassing episode make this a diss track that lands some gloves, even if it does feel kind of safe. I mean, Ma$e isn’t about to come at Cam with any ether.
“Coleslaw” opens with a disclaimer—“See y’all don’t like it when I’m nice/ Y’all only like it when I’m ignorant,” Cam asserts over a dramatic, tightly-wound strings sample. “So that’s exactly what you get.” He proceeds to pick at ex-collaborator Kanye West’s recent mental health issues and subsequent retreat from public life. “Be yourself, you ain’t gotta go AWOL,” raps Cam. This is not good advice—a reminder that a year ago, West’s public breakdown was met with derision where empathy should have been.
Better bars come on the pistols, money and braggadocio-loaded “D.I.A,” where Cam spits, “Til you seen me, you never heard the word swagger.” Argue about this all you want, but as West once alluded, there’s only one rapper can pull off pink mink in the summertime. Cam even give so few fucks, he calls himself the “Black Trump.” (Never forget: The famously anti-snitching Cam says it’s ok to rat on the president.)
“Lean” find Cam looking back on the “jealousy, crack, greed, homicide, and chronic” that dominated his life growing up over a dinky piano and rapturous choir version of the Bill Withers classic “Lean on Me”, while “Dime After Dime” is a slick jack move on Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Forget chopping up the soul, appropriating classics wholesale with Richard Prince-levels of audacity has long been a go-to Cam trope (two of my favorite Cam songs from the past few years are “My Life,” which takes from Roy Ayers’ oft-sampled “In The Sunshine,” and “Go Outside,” which draws from the Cults song of the same name) and he repackages the art here with pure confidence.
Another highpoint comes when Cam veers into double time rapping and back again with silky fluidity on the less-than two minute “Fleegod,” proving the loose flow—a few shades huskier than his “Oh Boy” days—hasn’t deserted him, while he gives heartfelt thanks for his son’s mother on the screeching horns of closer “Uwasntthere.”
Yet too much falls short for this to be a classic Cam’ron release. “The Other Sides” half-sung bars over a toothless trap beat offers nothing memorable, while Cam’s flow at times—“Hallalujah,” for example—sounds stunted. The production on tracks like “D.I.A.” is in keeping with the long-term Dipset remit, but lacks a little of the magic dust that made their inital run so thrilling.
Still, when it does come together, The Program is a record that reaffirms why we need Killa around. He’s a veteran in the art of strutting opulence and caustic trash-talking that the kids deserve to learn from.