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Music by VICE

Big White T-Shirts: Cam'ron and the Art of Not Giving a Fuck

Cam'ron talks gibberish like a Pentecostal minister; he brags about wearing cool sneakers even though they’re uncomfortable; he mentions 20 family members in a single verse. When you’re ridiculous so consistently, it transcends parody and becomes its own

by John Saward
Oct 15 2013, 4:00pm

A minute and a half into the video for 2003’s “Dipset (Santana’s Town)”, Cam’ron is leaning against a car wearing a white t-shirt the size of something exterminators cover houses with. Airbrushed on the shirt in Creamsicle orange is a picture of the pink panther and the words KILLA CAM. His jeans have “Killa Cam” embroidered on them, diagonally, in what looks like pink felt.

Next to him is a fragile-looking, wrinkly-necked white man who has one pink bandana hanging over the waist of his pants and another tied around his wrist. The man is wearing a chain so shiny that in YouTube’s 240p it is almost invisible. He behaves as though he has been recruited for the video with no explanation of his role. It is likely that Cam’ron does not have an explanation either, besides that his ethos has always been some combination of Dare me audaciousness and Fuck it indifference. The man is holding a cigar and fanned-out wads of cash like you would a dirty diaper: uncomfortable and a little afraid and desperate for it to all be over. At one point the man looks down and attempts to mimic the way Cam’ron is shuffling his own wads of cash. In this field, Cam’ron is peerless. He looks at money like he wants to impregnate it and murder it simultaneously. The old man looks at it like he has indigestion. He quickly abandons the idea, smiles spastically, and then stares into the distance. He is wearing large black sunglasses, so unfortunately we are unable to see his eyes melting out of his skull.

A bare-stomached woman enters the frame next to Cam’ron, half-dancing, but he only briefly acknowledges her. Every flagrant gesture must be shown the proper attention, of course, and he’s still playing with his money.

Four months ago, Cam’ron made his first series of posts to Vine. The clips primarily feature exceptionally generic shootout bits with pretend guns, but conclude with Cam’ron and his girlfriend, Juju, resolving a dispute by performing the merengue together. During the merengue sequence, Cam’ron has, without notice, changed outfits, and is also wearing a bath towel tied around his neck. It was the definitive Cam’ron moment: thug posturing, a punch line of self-aware absurdity, a woman with a colossal ass.

Shortly after the Vines were posted, Hot 97’s Miss Info said, “It’s like he has 15 seconds more than the rest of us,” a statement which you could apply not just to his Vine proficiency but to his every means of expression. His verses, his wardrobe, his interviews; no one’s persona has ever had a denser concentration of what they claim to stand for. Cam’ron exists as Cam’ron as thoroughly as anyone has ever existed as themselves.

While Jay-Z, hip-hop megalith and Cam’s one-time rival, allowed himself to be appropriated all summer by Judd Apatow, Marina Abramovic, and a parade of vaguely important white people, Cam’ron raps on “Think About It,” from his recently released mixtape Ghetto Heaven, “I run with some no-namers/ Never met celebrity, don’t even wanna know famous.” He spits lines with the kind of casual defiance of a kid giving the faculty the finger on the last day of school. In Cam’ron there is, and has always been, a fearlessness, an indifference to repercussions, a willingness to be weird and strange and to frighten you, that is liberating. He is someone immune to caricature, because he has always seemed like he needs no one, nor their interpretation of him. On “Killa Cam”, from 2004’s Purple Haze, his brilliantly surreal and occasionally incoherent masterwork, he raps, “Bitches they want to neuter me/ Ni**as they want to tutor me/ The hooligan in Houlihan’s/ Maneuvering’s nothing new to me.” Leave me alone, I can do it alone, he is almost saying. It seems like every appearance, every album, is the residue of that pure impulse. Why fake it if you’re only doing this for yourself?

His Twitter timeline offers little commentary of his own and consists almost entirely of him retweeting fan praise of his recent projects. It is him flaring his nostrils and shuffling money again, just a different denomination. His booking agent can be contacted at . His official website’s url is Ghetto Heaven is his first solo release in over a year. Cam’ron has, if you look at his career from a certain angle, actively avoided fame; he’s after notoriety. He was one of the mainstream’s first disseminators of the phrase “no homo,” while at the same time strutting in purple minks and treasured animal furs like a mob wife would. On Purple Haze’s “Leave Me Alone Pt. 2” he talks about beating the rap game and then practically yadda-yaddas groupie love. Five lines later, he mourns a dead cousin. “I stay lonely and cocky.” Anyone can win, not everyone gets remembered.

He has rapped over beats that sample Cyndi Lauper, Journey, Billy Joel, the Four Seasons, and on Ghetto Heaven the Golden Girls theme and the Wimba Wey song from Lion King. On paper it reads as a list of A-ha! randomness and see-what-I-did-there? winks at the camera, but take four minutes and listen to “Killa Cam” again. It features a dude audacious enough to name himself Opera Steve, yet it is epic. It fucking works. It will put a toe tag on the next 10 minutes of your day. It is the soundtrack to an immense, unstoppable arrogance. Cam’ron is the best, he has declared. According to who? In what category? Based on what criteria? Doesn’t matter. “You unhappy, Scrappy?/ I got Pataki at me.” Later, he raps over the Hill Street Blues theme. An unabashed criminal looping the sound of a police serial is elementary irony, sure. But it’s also where Cam raps about selling weed to a minor behind a diner. About telling a dime to her face she’s fine but he’s finer.

“Golden Friends” is less brothers in arms gang bluster than inside jokes in an AIM profile—borrowing his friend’s sneakers; friends letting friends use their kids as tax deductibles. Cam’ron has an ability to shift abruptly from menace to compassion; from lurid, definitely-illegal sex fantasies to tenderness. He raps over car alarm-triggering Godzilla-stomp beats, then about playing spades over beats sampling Pitchfork darlings who look like this.

He somehow arranged for a 2 Chainz feature, but he appears for literally four lines in a song less than two minutes long. Cam’ron doesn’t really do reverence. After all, as he tells it, it was Big L who would ask him at four in the morning, as Cam’ron walked to the “chicken store,” to freestyle for his inspiration. Gods pray to no one; they just make miracles.

“Go Outside,” like Crime Pays’ “I Hate My Job,” is an anthem for the proletariat, Cam abandoning the grandiosity that would feel hollow from someone operating on the DatPiff fringes. He raps about getting scammed by Instagram mirages; emojis; scorned ex-lovers writing on his garage with lipstick. Cam has always been this real, but in tandem with the ketchup-red curtains baring the Diplomats logo still hanging around his house, it’s striking how distant his WORLD IS YOURS period seems from here.

He’ll always have his language, though; that mixture of Zoology, videogame noises, Drakes Cakes ingredients, and fellatio euphemisms, each one stacked so intricately on top of the others a misspoken syllable would implode the whole song. For other rappers a Cam verse would be a frantic hot coal dance. There are narratives contained within single sentences; sometimes there are no conjunctions, just nouns and verbs and onomatopoeia. Ghostface did something similar, but with a self-paralyzing fury, his eyes squeezed shut, like an exorcist in a dark room. Cam’ron always seems only half-invested, above it in the sense that he is above everything. He delivers them with an unmistakable calm, practically groaning as the hook ends and a new verse is about to begin, like he needs to be pull-started, still in that semi-congested talk-rap that sounds like he’s rapping to you through a drive-thru speaker. Few have ever combined cockiness, weirdness, and near-boredom-level contentment as he has, has ever made it look so convincing, with the elements amplifying each other rather than serving as contradictions. He has been visceral and sincere, to a degree that would emasculate a rapper more obsessive about maintaining an air of invincibility. Cam’ron is as strident as ever. He wears his biography, every grisly footnote, like a blue ribbon.

He is perhaps rap’s most accomplished troll. To the outraged FOX News anchors who see the garish wardrobes and frivolousness of hip-hop as the decay of America, Cam’ron has this to say: “I park in the tow-away zone, chrome / I don't care; that car a throwaway, homes.” To those horrified by celebrated incarceration as a badge of hood legitimacy: “18 months? Please that ain’t facing time/I’m stressed anyway, need it for vacation time.” He has mastered the theater of the absurd. He has Mike Tyson’s permanent scowl and righteous indignation, Larry David’s fascination with mundane inconveniences, and ODB’s wildcard element.

He has an ability to see reality in a higher definition. He rapped that “the range looks like Laffy Taffy.” There are six different flavors of Laffy Taffy, but this makes so much sense. It would be like if you described the sky at sunset as looking like stripper nails. You see traces of this in Lil B, in Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka, Action Bronson, Danny Brown, Chief Keef, in anyone willing to embrace hip hop as recreation, something limitless and malleable, there for spreading gospel and mythology, but also, and, maybe above all, something for their own amusement. Cam’ron helped found the philosophy that a persona doesn’t need to be impenetrable, it just needs to be honest. He talks gibberish like a Pentecostal minister; he brags about wearing cool sneakers even though they’re uncomfortable; he mentions 20 family members in a single verse. When you’re ridiculous so consistently, it transcends parody and becomes its own sincerity.

Purple Haze was the definitive article of pre-recession, mid-00s recklessness. You could insist that he hasn’t evolved since then, but if you have been yourself as intensely as possible from the beginning, who else is there to be?

On “Poundcake,” off of Drake’s Nothing Was the Same, Jay-Z rapped about making Cam’ron (among others) a millionaire. He listed Cam’ron’s name off like he was someone waiting to be picked up at a bus stop. The old Cam’ron would have released eight simmering, no chorus minutes of resentment and juvenile antagonism, on which he would sound ferociously undaunted even despite the knowledge that Jay-Z has surpassed him by every quantitative measure. Instead, his response is tacked to the end of Ghetto Heaven like a post script, little more than a clarification. On Ghetto Heaven, he mostly raps about iPhones and wireless providers. We all get old; some don’t fight it.

John Saward was All American in his age group, yo. He's on Twitter - @RBUAS