Music Features

Camron's "Purple Haze"

Purple Haze came out in 2004, so perhaps it is premature to call it a classic. I won't even call it the best hip hop album of that year, but maybe I will should I do some homework. In any case, it was initially mindblowing, and a little bit of time has only proven it's resonance. Did you ever wonder why recalcitrant indie site Pitchfork spent over a year writing excessively about every breath Dipset took? This album has a lot to do with it. It's not that it isn't already dated, bloated in the standard hip hop fashion (it's barely two minutes shy of the disc capacity, and too much of that time is taken up with some awful narration and skits), and overly reliant on familiar melodies and samples. That doesn't seem to matter. This is such an inexplicable masterpiece that it seemed to many to be the dawn of a colossal era of dominance comparable to Wu Tang in the mid-90s, but it turns out that this was the beautifully flawed apex of Cam'ron's gorgeous absurdity.

Cam'ron is endlessly odd to the point of surreal fascination. He reverses the trend of most breakthrough emcees, going from candy pop poster boy rapper of Hey Ma fame to hard icon, all the while getting simultaneously more shamelessly poppy (he riffs on Cyndi Lauper here) and inscrutably anti-social and thuggish (women are degraded and guns exalted throughout, but if Freud tried to have a field day in this album he would likely get blasted). He has purposefully, vocally, and flagrantly appropriated the most feminine colours possible (pink and the titular purple) for peacock thughood, and done urban fashion a favour there that justifies his legacy alone. With releases that reached their peak here, he has dropped a series of hip hop albums that indulged in the most abhorred aspects of their genre and initially felt bombastic and sloppy, but lingered until there was no choice but to bow before their intangible genius.

Two separate points on Cam's rhythmic rhyming: about 50 percent of it is parsable and 75 percent of it is likely to be nonsense outside of his own head, and that's just fine. The whole thing sounds great, and there is no very good reason abstract New York emcees like Cam'ron or the entirety of the Wu Tang Clan should not be regarded along with visceral Irish literary linguists like Samuel Beckett or James Joyce or the overrated beat poets of 50s New York. Actually, I'd go as far as to suggest that Cam's rhythmically tight and rhymewise, if in no other way, sound compositions are actually a bit more disciplined and difficult than those touchstones. Is he talking about fucking, shooting, or alligators? Doesn't matter, Cam'ron is gracing us with an impressionistic account of being an eccentric thug gliding through the busy wonderland that is New York, guileless to his own queerness in an overcrowded environment.

The album starts out odd and superficially typical, a string of intrusive interludes and pounding crime cuts. It takes a few listens and a great deal of time to latch onto the manic vibe. In time, however, we arrive at Killa Cam, in which the deification of creator as murderer enters an oddly aesthetic realm, with crystalline Jamaican voices exalting the hero. Down and Out, one of Kanye West's all time best productions (this is not light praise in the least), hones the imagery down to a stream of half evocative beauty and half beautiful gibberish that serves as a high point for the album and pop music. This provides an anchor to understand the fucked up opening cuts and digest the never-ending story of invective, narrative, and wordfuckery to follow. Indeed, the series of confrontational, overwhelming, and silly songs never end (there are a full 24 tracks here), but this is a case of sensory overload being persuasive instead of off putting.

Laced among the spray of clacking paint ball crime stories, the album includes shameless appropriations of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Earth, Wind & Fire and the Theme to Hill Street Blues, whatever that's actually called. The striking and relentless production and Cam's (at least at this point) inexhaustible flow of verbal nonsense alchemy actually take on a new gravitas here, creating a new surreal Harlem legend around every familiar note. From this indelible midphase, Cam'ron continues to wallow in flagrant excess and invention for almost a full hour. This is an album that seems longer than it is (and it is long), but benefits from it, holding the listener in the titular state of Purple Haze as long as possible. It continues many hours and years after the album ends.