The distance between Cam’ron’s debut album Confessions of Fire and his fourth one, canonical 2000s NYC rap opus Purple Haze, isn’t so great, a matter of six years in which the Harlem icon was constantly releasing music as a solo artist and as the mastermind of similarly iconic collective Dipset. But by 2004, Cam had evolved into a wholly different sort of artist, having grafted himself to the Roc-A-Fella brand quite successfully a few years prior, furthering and defining the company’s aesthetic with mega-hit Come Home with Me. The scrappy, vulnerable Cam venturing into the jungle on Confessions’ “Intro” had since calcified into his more recognized grim-faced, goofy, gangbanger persona, and conquered the pop rap industry in the process, bringing friends and family up with him as promised on those early songs (Dipset co-founders Jim Jones and Freekey Zekey being lifelong friends). Purple Haze ends up being a celebratory album in this way, a chronicle of all Cam and The Diplomats had so far accomplished and were in the process of accomplishing; self-indulgent and proud of it.
Of course, indulgence is a double-edged sword in pop artistry, and Purple Haze is accordingly a messy, sprawling album that tests patience with its 77-minute runtime and rather generous offering of skits (alternating between recordings of Cam smirking his way through angry phone convos and the loosely narrativized recollections of former client “Mizzle”). Granted, this sort of structure and extensive track list wasn’t unfamiliar terrain for Cam and his contemporaries, but Purple Haze feels like an escalation, working off the template established on Come Home with Me, but this time as a nonstop hype machine, all hard-hitting, confrontational beats informed by Roc-A-Fella’s post-Kanye predilection for soul sample-heavy production. Ye shows up here a newly minted star, contributing a verse to “All Falls Down” spiritual successor “Down and Out” (produced by Brian “All Day” Miller, often miscredited to West) and to say a few words on penultimate dazzler “Dip-Set Forever.” But the star moments on Purple Haze are reserved for Dipset, the collective coming off of their own recent group triumph with the Diplomatic Immunity duology, the second one having dropped just a month prior. Juelz Santana gets prime placement on Heatmakerz stunner “More Gangsta Music” (the album’s first proper track) setting the bar high for mean bombast early on, while the Freekey Zekey-featuring “Hey Lady” gives Cam the opportunity to satisfy his more playful stylings, adopting a melodic, sing-songy flow for a knowingly silly cut. Jim Jones and J.R. Writer each get their own individual moments to shine (the latter on stand out “Shake,” which kicks off the album’s concluding fireworks), but The Diplomats are really on every track in some sense or another, the roster constantly shouted out or invited in to adlib, and it’s this exuberant camaraderie that makes Purple Haze hard to resist. And to be sure, there are moments where the contemporary listener might be inclined to resist, Cam’s misogynist lyricism often standing out as particularly cruel and nasty, even by the pop music industry’s low standards, but outside of this even, Purple Haze isn’t quite so unimpeachable with a host of standout tracks buffered by dense blocks of classically minded gangsta rap. Never not technically proficient and, in a sense, cool, this project tends to engage most when it allows for Cam’s more eccentric flourishes, songs like the Cyndi Lauper-interpolating club anthem “Girls” busting up the monotony nicely, but such moments are mostly outliers. Almost too cohesive of a vision at times, Purple Haze still reflects the dynamic personality and eclectic aesthetic interests of its author enough to make its classic status challenging to dispute, but in hindsight one can see this as the point where Cam’ron had been satisfied artistically, the next six years yielding no evolution as significant and apparent as the one that transpired between his first project and this one.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.