Dropping Jewels: The Ebb and Flow of Camp Lo

Stream: Camp Lo “Sparkle” (Mr Midnight Mix)

Stream: Camp Lo “8 Moons Ago”

Stream: Fiend “Paradise”

Stream: Curren$y ft. Fiend “Flying Iron”

Rappers ranging from Spoonie Gee and Jekyll and Hyde to Rakim and Big Daddy Kane spoke of their  (typically exaggerated) off-stage indulgences —bona fide dimepieces, top shelf liquor, European automobiles, exotic vacations— in order to bolster their claims of being dedicated craftsman and born winners. The idea is that the artist no longer had to view himself as a struggling marketplace hack or a slave to unreliable patronage;  the cream of the crop rapper who transcended the traps of the ghetto through sheer talent deserved his share of the spoils of the ’80s economic boom as much as anyone else. It’s an entertaining if self-serving and misleading narrative that has resurfaced in numerous iterations in following decades;  in some instances it is posited as diametrically opposed to other come-up narratives that vaguely focused on intellectual or spiritual enlightenment;  and other times it is united with these concerns.

Camp-Lo’s initial approach to chronicling the good life is interesting because instead of alluding to the trappings of luxury to accentuate the finer traits of an established artist persona, they construct a universe in which all creative activity is an extension of lavish living. In the world of Uptown Saturday Night, ((Camp-Lo’s 1997 debut album, if you aren’t familiar.)) rhymes are written and delivered to honor the grandeur and romance of  illegally acquired new money. The act of rapping —and the personas dedicated to rapping— are elevated to a mythic status by their choice of subject matter, not by aspirations towards social mobility or claims of having “made it” despite the odds. Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt —like Uptown, features smooth, nearly ethereal production by Ski— explores wealth and prestige as the cherished but ultimately insufficient rewards of participating in deadly competitive,  psychologically scarring illicit hustles, but Uptown Saturday Night is almost entirely unconcerned with such troubles. There is no realist project to speak of. The road to riches is a nonstop flood of bright city lights, flashy villains and anti-heroes, and allusions to the heroes of blaxploitation cinema, classic soul, and the black power movement.

Uptown Saturday Night contains bits of coherent narrative amidst surreal opulence, but these skeletal stories serve only to introduce broadly flamboyant and charmingly villainous characters, adding texture to an album devoted to the corporeal, sumptuous pleasures of a vice-ruled world. The listener is not implored to contemplate the morality of a diamond smuggling scheme or even marvel at  its sophistication, only to feel the rush of emotions associated with grabbing the loot or gems and running off into the exotic sunset, dusting off one’s finery after suavely gunning down henchmen in pursuit. Much like Nas envisions the everyday New York street kid as the heir to a long line of kingpins and emperors on Memory Lane, ((I explain this in detail here.)) Camp-Lo enlivens flamboyant exploits —think the Lo-Lifes trooping to Time’s Square to show off their Polo gear— with the stuff of legend, injecting imagery from every nearly every documented era of black cool into their rhymes.

In the years since Uptown Saturday Night was released, Camp Lo have expanded upon their formula, recording songs that celebrate glamourous excess without dwelling on how the goods are procured, as well as songs that describe elaborate jetset partying and/or elevated states of consciousness unrelated to the thrill of the heist. ((You can download a compilation of their post-2000 material here.)) They are less reliant on filling every available second with their vocals, more likely to let a track or a concept breathe without overdoing the references to material items, and willing to experiment with deliveries that are punchy and assertive, as opposed to the velvety stylings of their ’90s output. In recent years artists like Curren$y and International Jones (b.k.a. Fiend) have recorded songs with a similar focus on the blissed out swank life; possibly taking a cue from Camp Lo’s later output, they choose a broader pantheon of classy heroes to emulate than just the rebels of blaxploitation.

Curren$y remains fixated on the life of repose that happens long after the cash is accumulated and laundered, devoting entire songs to cruising in custom whips, lackadaisical lounging, and smoking up girls during marathon video game sessions. As International Jones, Fiend indulges in some amount of hustler storytelling, but more often than not draws inspiration from the R&B tough guys and pattering DJs of the ’70s to paint himself as a black James Bond superman lover figure. Given the Ski connection and a shared set of thematic concerns, it is tempting to suggest that what Curren$y and Fiend accomplish in collaboration is akin to a new Camp Lo. But even when the two are rhyming over an old Camp Lo instrumental ((See “Raps and Hustles.”)) there is no evident mimicry, not even of the reverent type.

The reason, in my estimation, is that Curren$y and Fiend represent a parallel but essentially different order of rap personae that manage to sound at home over warm, lush, melodic production: the swaggering everymen who prefer to revel in the creature comforts of their fully stocked cribs. While the tropical locales and dashing intrigue of Camp-Lo’s early work were obviously fictively inflected, the whole conceit was based in the mobile public displays of temporary or quickly scrambled wealth that were hugely important to inner-city New Yorkers in the ’80s. Curren$y and Fiend are indebted to a limited extent to the same mythos, but are more interested in locating the fantastic within the walls of their abodes, where their imaginations can soar free set against a backdrop of flickering flatscreens and clouds of weed smoke. — Thun

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