When Harlem rapper Cam'ron met reporters outside Howard University Hospital last month (after suffering gunshot wounds while sitting in his Lamborghini at a D.C. intersection), he quickly got to the point: "I got shot three times and my album comes out November 22nd."
Well, not exactly, but can you blame the man for failing to double-check his BlackBerry? Fans will have to wait until next year for Cam's "Killa Season." It's actually Cam'ron protege Juelz Santana's sophomore effort, "What the Game's Been Missing," that dropped in stores yesterday.
Santana is the youngest, and most vital, acolyte in Cam'ron's Diplomats crew (or Dipset), a collective of Harlem rappers who continue to build steam with a quirky mishmash of all things glitzy and gangsta. Often dressed in a spectrum of bright colors and decked out with diamonds, they rap tough and dress tacky, skirting the line between cartoonish excess and street reality. Sort of like a hip-hop Guns N' Roses.
Santana will probably always play Slash to Cam's Axl Rose, but his flow is just as distinctive. Armed with a commanding bark that belies his lanky frame, the young rapper has a predilection for repeating stanzas and bullying his way out of rhyme schemes -- a talent that can be amazing at times, or numbingly monotonous.
"What the Game's Been Missing" ultimately suffers from this inconsistency, but starts off strong with "Rumble Young Man Rumble." It's an archetypal Dipset banger, both gaudy and grimy, with a slinky electric guitar line slithering over shuffling high-hats and gut-shaking kicks. Santana, at his most verbose, spits: "I was taught be smart, stay humble. I was taught be hard, don't fumble. I was taught in this concrete jungle rumble, young man, rumble."
Another early track, "Oh Yes," samples the old Marvelettes tune "Please Mr. Postman" -- perhaps jacking a move from DJ Technics, who sampled the same golden oldie for his Baltimore Club staple. Santana's take is a sleeper by comparison, thanks in part to this spartan hook: "Ayyyy . . . Yayyy . . . Sayyy . . . This the jam, yup. Put yo' hands up, and just (waiiiit), and just (waiiiiit)."
Wait indeed. There are 19 more skit-free tracks, in which Juelz uses his words just as sparingly.
On "Clockwork," Santana hopscotches over the sound of a dripping spigot: "Move it around and around, and around like a clock, chick. To the sound, to the sound, to the sound of the clock's tick . . . tock . . . tick . . . tock." You can feel life passing you by.
Or how about these opening couplets from "Whatever U Wanna Call It": "Straight for paper, paper chaser, gangsta-gangsta, gangsta-gangsta."
Is this thug-dadaist poetry? Sheer laziness? Both?
The meandering 76-minute disc comes back to life in the second half thanks to the singles "There It Go (The Whistle Song)" and "Mic Check," as Santana skips over a delightfully minimal track of catcall whistling and 808 thumps on the former and wrestles with spaghetti-western horn sweeps on the latter.
But the album peaks with "Murda Murda," offering a trademark dose of Dipset ferocity and flamboyance. Recycling the signature Ini Kamoze sample heard in Damian Marley's inescapable summer anthem "Welcome to Jamrock," Santana is quick to put his stamp on the track.
"Welcome to Jamrock? Nooooo! Welcome to my damn block!" he shouts before babbling the hook "Murda-murda-mu-murda-murda-mu-murda." Like many of Juelz Santana's finest moments, it would sound absurd if he weren't so cocksure.