‘Purple Haze’ Turns 10: Analyzing Cam’ron’s Lyrical Climax (Pause)
With his kooky flow and wordplay, Killa Cam reached his zenith on Purple Haze
In 2014, Cam’ron remains an iconic figure years after his popularity as an artist waned. The line of custom capes he released with designer Mark McNairy is a comical ode to the days when the Harlem native inspired legions of men to proudly wear pink. He’s also used the advent of the Internet and his occasionally antagonistic taste for comedy to create a series of hilarious short films on Vine. But the reason Cam has become this paragon of ghetto superstardom is his audacity. Simply put, he’s an undaunted comedian with a special inclination for uttering the ridiculous. Lyrically, that ridiculousness reached its pinnacle 10 years ago when he swapped pink for purple with the release of his fourth album, Purple Haze.
Cam’ron’s lyrics reached peak absurdity as his popularity reached its zenith. By the end of the 2004, he was still running his victory lap in the wake of his 2002 breakthrough, Come Home With Me, and his turn as an adaptation of legendary Harlem gangster Alberto “Alpo” Martinez in Paid in Full. As many rappers do, he used the opportunity to put his crew on, which resulted in 2003’s Diplomatic Immunity. Though Cam brought Jim Jones, Juelz Santana, and Freekey Zekey into the spotlight, there’s really no sharing the spotlight with Cam. He steals the show on nearly every song he appeared on, including the classics “I Really Mean It” and “Dipset Anthem.”
Bars like “Bird flip a dozen/chicks, it’s dicks they suckin’/Swallow my kids, go and kiss they cousin/Yes, they kissin’ cousins/Toya’s kissin’ muffin/Worse than that, they go home and kiss they husband/The shit’s disgusting” show off an aptitude for stumbling down a rhyme scheme rabbit hole, as well as the vulgar egotism of a crass artist approaching his prime. In retrospect, it was a prelude to one of hip-hop’s most anticipated follow-up projects of the mid-aughts.
Tracks from Purple Haze began surfacing in late 2003, just as Jay Z was making his grand exit from rap and Kanye West was seeking legitimacy as a rapper. No one expected College Dropout to be the landmark album that it became, so Dame Dash groomed Cam’ron to carry Roc-A-Fella as the label’s star. “Get Em Girls” was his ludicrous reach for that new plateau of stardom, and his lyrics were more brazen than ever. From blatant arrogance (“Bitches say I’m the man, I tell ‘em ‘nevermind’”) to wanton materialism and an acute penchant for disrespect (“Whips on my fist/houses on my wrists/Your budget on my neck, your spouse on my dick/Posters on the wall/posted on my balls/Dick in her mouth, I tell her…”), “Get Em Girls” is a lyrical exercise in the over-the-top.
More impressive than his willingness to say anything, couth be damned, is the way he switches flows seamlessly. Peep the internal rhyme with a heavy hand of onomatopoeia: “Ate, boom boom/my ace boon coons/Shake, bake, skate, vroom vroom/Seventh to eighth, zoom zoom, boom boom tunes/’Fore I get life, that boom boom room/Wreckx-n-Effect’s, zoom zoom in poom poom/Since the, movie Cocoon/had my Uzi platoon” are simultaneously preposterous and brilliant because of his ability to wedge stream-of-consciousness, word association rhymes into rapid-fire bars. The final verse includes Cam tweaking his comedic timing to hilarious results (“Wanna hit it from the back, she agreed that I’m looney/But proceeded to moon me”), and, of course, more hysterical disrespect (“He in boot camp, you on food stamps/Welfare, no health care, a true tramp”). “Get Em Girls” is pompous and flamboyant, then a preview of Cam’s development.
Picking up where “Get Em Girls” left off was “Killa Cam,” a conceit-laden ode to his own greatness. Cam’ron has always been self-aware, but on the latter, his ego soared to new heights as The Heatmakerz-layered Opera Steve’s chants, creating a trunk-rattler while Cam basked in the gleam of his expanding fame. Him anointing himself the “Hooligan in Houlihan’s” is amusing, but the scope of his boasts overshadow their calm delivery. Although Jay Z attempted to trademark a color with “Jay Z Blue,” Cam placed his own egregious spin on another color: “Canary burgundy, I call it ‘Lemon Red’/Yellow diamonds in my ear, call ‘em ‘Lemonheads.’” His verse gained steam as it drew to a close, and he ended with it an exclamation point that, while nonchalant, is still cocky: “You unhappy scrappy?/I got Pataki at me/Bitches say I’m tacky daddy, Range look like Laffy Taffy.”
In a perfect touch, the video featured Cam’ron driving a pink Range Rover. This garish display would raise eyebrows if orchestrated by others, but for Cam, it was simply the Harlem in his veins evolving with his celebrity. As he asked on the song’s final verse after referencing Uptown legends like Nicky Barnes, Rich Porter, Alpo, and even former friend, Ma$e, “Who am I to fuck tradition up?”
After several delays, Purple Haze finally arrived in December 2004. Cam’ron made up for the wait by overloading the project with outrageousness. On the Kanye-produced “Down and Out,” he overshadowed the Chicago native, which is no small feat. Kanye West not being the most ridiculous person in the room is unfathomable in 2014, but a decade ago, he had no choice but to take a back seat to Cam’ron’s purple aura.
Although his explanation of what he wears to a battle and threatening to shoot up a foe’s funeral and perform the real Harlem Shake at the wake are the type of off-the wall lines the his fans love, his clever nod to the contents of his closet is the song’s gem. “You got pets? Me too, mines are dead/Fox, minks, gators that’s necessary/Accessories, my closet’s Pet Sematary/I get approached by animal activists/I live in a zoo, I run scandals with savages” exhibits a skilled comedian’s ability to set up a punchline, then finish it off in rewarding fashion.
Cam’ron always has his finger on the pulse of popular culture, and his lyrics on Purple Haze reflect the happenings of 2004. On “Family Ties,” he shouts out Xzibit’s surprising post-rap charity work with Pimp My Ride (“It’s a pimp in my ride, no need to pimp the ride”), and ends the song with “Fuck Kerry and Bush, you should vote for me,” a nod to the 2004 presidential election.
On the discourteous “Girls,” he announces that he’s “In the building, mister/With the Olsen twins, and the Hilton sisters.” He later references Kurupt and the late Nate Dogg’s forgotten “Girls All Pause” (I’m corrupt, ‘cause girls all pause) by delivering it exactly how Nate Dogg did. Still, this is no match for the multisyllabic lyrical acrobatics he tosses around throughout the song. There are plenty of examples, but this one stings the most: “And you thought you a baller, a baller?/Hawker, dog you a stalker/Upset ‘cause what she wear’s showing/Aww man, you ain’t in gear for knowing/Ask questions in fear of hoeing/What’s that? Who you with? Where you at? Where you goin’/Where you going, I’m flowin’, she blowin’/Sky high like a Boeing/Got pies like it’s snowing.” Even better, he made this seem effortless.
The majority of the lyrics on Purple Haze lean heavily towards sex, money, and drugs (with a comic twist), but there was still room for insight. On, “Soap Opera,” the hood version of The Notebook, he explains that ambition made him choose success over a past love: “Always got a song to do/Can’t get along it’s true/So I skipped marriage, bought her six karats/Rather die that nigga, than to live average.” He expounds upon his motivation a few songs later on “More Reasons,” which hilariously samples Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Reasons.” “Back then I played for Gauchos, went over to Riverside/Young life turned left, we back over to Riverside/Blood played for Stone Gym/That’s when I told him and Jim/We ain’t ballin’ for real, where’s the stone gems?” he asks. He best summed up his relentless drive in a few bars: “Can’t get paid on a Earth this big?/You worthless kid/Cam don’t deserve to live.”
Cam’ron is a phenomenon. While not as pivotal as Jay Z or Nas, he had a unique impact that matched his ability and has kept him relevant years later. Still, more awe-inspiring than his half-goon, half-jester aesthetic is the deadpan delivery of lyrics that, to this day, still make listeners laugh like they’re hearing them for the first time. He’s an unlikely lyrical genius, layering his verses with double entendres. Purple Haze, the project where his powers were at their most potent, was probably the closest an artist came to releasing a mixtape on a major label at the time. Come Home With Me might be the better album, but Purple Haze will always be remembered as the moment Cam’s lyricism, celebrity, and wonderful obnoxiousness aligned at an apex. —Julian Kimble
Julian Kimble has written for Complex, the Washington City Paper, Billboard, HipHopDX and more. Follow him on Twitter here.