The Distillery: Cam'ron's Crime Pays

Any Cam'ron reckoning that doesn't address the Harlem MC's unflagging inhumanity is a dishonest one. Most hip-hop heads have developed a cognitive-dissonance filter for the misogyny and nihilism coating most rap product; we try to see the hateful forest for the acrobatic trees.

Still, though: Jay-Z takes the drug-kingpin longview, Clipse spits creative coke-rap chatter, 50 Cent celebrates a crime titan-as-corporate-asswipe aesthetic and Lil Wayne gets psychedelic with hustla tropes. But Cam'ron's persona is something more maligant: he's pure evil incarnate, cataloguing the usual monied extravagances but honing in on the finer details of running trains, turning women into drug mules, getting 'em hooked on the product he knows we know he doesn't push anymore, taking lives as casually as he slips into one flamboyantly hued outfit or another (no homo!) - and doing so with a black-as-coal comedic gallows humor that at first scans as humorlessness.

To appreciate this ex-Dipset member, you've gotta be able to take the good - blank-faced double-entendre punchlines, run-on impressionist tangents that spiral into scat-like nonsense - with the cutthroat callous, like this chestnut from 2004's "Harlem Streets": "Then I hymen-grind her, 'til her mom remind her/ Diamonds blind her, visions gone, kiss her palm/ Turn her on, lift her arm, notice that her wrists is wrong."

Killa Cam makes none (or few) of the concessions necessary for household-name status; he lacks the charisma of Young Jeezy or Kanye West, the off-the-wall inscruitable charm of Gucci Mane, the nasally rapidfire wheedle of Eminem. This game is played on his uncompromising terms, and when you consider how doggedly grimy the beats he chooses are on Crime Pays - the shiny, pop-art production of '04's Purple Haze is long gone - it's no wonder that Cam's best known for defending the "stop snitchin'" movement in an Anderson Cooper interview.

After 06's blah Killa Season - overstuffed with weak guest spots; patchwork, uninspired production; and a prevailing listlessness - Cam vanished from the game for a bit, consumed with family problems. 07's half -middling Public Enemy #1 mixtape found him willing himself back into fighting shape.

Crime Pays ranks among his better efforts, even though no new ground is really being broken. Filler? You betcha. But the keepers rank with his finest rambles - think "Wet Wipes," "Get 'Em Girls," "Oh Boy," "Calm Down," "Hot Mess" or "Get Down."

2. "Cookin' Up": At first, Cam just seems to have a thing for the color red: "Red slippers, red robe/ Red kitchen, red stove," he raps over sirens, school-dismissal bells, and pensive synths. It took me a few listens to realize he was describing the aftermath of a bloodbath. From there, we're off on a scene-setting, self-inflating referent-spree that namechecks 70s comedian Gallagher, M.I.A., Mike Tyson, Andre Miller, and more without pausing for breath.

It's vividly meaningless, blithely offensive and awesome all at once, letting us know we're definitely back in Cam Country. Also, when Cam says "I told your bitch to hurry up/ We don't wait for trains," redeeming expensive Amtrak tickets isn't the issue.

3. "Where I Know You From": How come rappers poking fun at Pimp My Ride host/crap MC Xibit never gets old? Somehow, Cam manages to rattle off a string of apartment number/letters - "Crack in 4B/ Coke in 5A/ Dope in 8F/ The hoes in 9J " - without making the obvious "Apartment 3G" joke his fans were holding their breath for.

6. "Curve": ARAAB Muzik and Skitzo - is it just me, or do producer's monikers get more and more asinine with every passing year? - conjure up a hyperventilating ivory gust for more rambling, this time about an order you can throw at folks who'd rather not deal with it.

7. "Silky (No Homo)": Is "No soft-drinks/ Just mad ice" a condemnation of the ex of whichever prospective Cam conquest is being addressed here, or a clever Cam boast? No idea, and that's the beauty of it. When he says "Your Saab?/ Oh God," I had a weird White Chicks flashback.

8. "Get It In Ohio": A love letter to drug running in the Midwest so laden with punchlines, geographical shout-outs and color-palette bric-a-brac that it almost turns into a grainy YouTube travelogue of the mind. To wit: "I got the green Benz, rag, raised, mustard Jag/ White coke, tan dope, black gun, tre-deuece, silver bullets, purple piff, blue pills, grey goose!" [Ed. note: Huh?]

10. "Grease" (Skit): Not a lick of music to be found, and Cam's sort of a secondary presence here. Basically, this is a simulated telephone conversation between our anti-hero and a woman he did wrong.

It begins as an exchange of "I'll take a shit in your car" threats but escalates into an out-and-out excoriation of his character (from her end) and an in-one-ear-out-the-other filtering (his end) that says more about who Cam is - or purports to be, anyway- than most of the actual songs here.

15. "Chalupa": Is that a hiccuping calliope? Whatever it is, it throbs and repeats and eneverates like a strobe light with a broken switch, underlining nonchalant talk like "Crib is like Mardi Gras/ No beads, grow weed/ Court case, courtside/ Nigga in the nosebleeds." We'll forgive the "summer in the wintertime" boilerplate.

17. "My Job": In the grand tradition of Rhymefest, generally, and Canibus' "Show This Jay-Oh-Bee" specifically, Cam goes off-message for a convincing, populist "work often sucks" joint that isn't R-rated.

While it's weird to realize that, potentially, "My Job" could be huge, this isn't the first time Killa's called a sidebar to get serious; "I.B.S.", from Killa Season, was an upfront science-drop about the rapper's lifelong battle with irritable bowel syndrome.

18. "Homocide": "Niggas say my car is the same color as flouride," Cam remarks at the beginning. "What the fuck color is flouride?" Points off for somehow not working "homina homina" into the unimaginative, if oddly hypnotic, chorus.

20. "Got It For Cheap" feat. Skitzo: Pre-release, this song was known as "My Aura"; thank God Cam wised up and changed that. Cam on his bling: "My jewelry it's a carnival/ Goddamn chain, it's like a Ferris wheel." Cam on his plans for your loved ones: "Your girl in my bed/ Your son on my block."

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Ray Cummings