20 years ago, Cam'ron came home

Come Home With Me was the moment that everything came together for Cam — and rap changed forever as a result.

Rapper Cam'ron of Roc-A-Fella Records in June, 2002 in Fort Lee, New Jersey.   (Photo by Gregory Boj...
Gregory Bojorquez/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Culture

Harlem’s Apollo Theater, at this point more an institution of American music than a venue, has served as hallowed ground throughout the life and career of LaRon Louis James, or Juelz Santana. In 1994, as a 12-year-old and one-half of a rap duo known as Draftpick, he got his start in music, winning the Apollo’s famed Amateur Night competition two weeks in a row. In 2018, at a Diplomats Thanksgiving show, he proposed to his longtime girlfriend there, on stage. She said yes. And on a gray and shitty evening this May, he’d returned for a coronation, celebrating the 20-year anniversary of the album, and the moment created by Dipset, that still may be the most influential of the 21st century in rap. Juelz strode the stage with his lifetime friends and mentors, Cameron Giles and Jim Jones, and barked a sacred incantation into his microphone. His words were piped through the speakers, bounced off the Apollo’s domed ceiling, and carried on the smoke in the air. If you’re a New Yorker of a certain age, they are tattooed on your brain: “It’s the home of 9/11, the place of the lost towers, we still banging, we never lost power.” And for a moment, huddled in the boisterous and joyous crowd, if you closed your eyes and opened your heart, you almost believed him.

In retrospect, it seems inevitable that Cam’ron was always going to win, to become a great, generational rapper that defined an entire decade of music both in New York and beyond. There are few greater pedigrees in rap history. He came up in an outfit that called itself The Children of the Corn with punchline magician and mixtape god Big L, and his childhood friend who went by the name Murda Mase. He was tapped by Biggie Smalls himself to write a hit song for his artist and side chick Lil Kim, before becoming the first artist signed to Biggie’s friend Un Rivera’s label. His debut album, Confessions of Fire, had features from Ma$e, Noreaga, Charli Baltimore, and Jermaine Dupri and production from the Trackmasters and a young Swizz Beatz. He had two crossover singles and a gritty two-hander with an up-and-coming DMX that was left off the album but still made the rotation late nights on Hot 97.

And then things got complicated. By 1999, Biggie and Big L were both shot and killed. Undeas was distributed through Epic, a label that in Cam’s estimation, didn’t know how to promote rap. He had signed a bad initial deal and was stuck in label hell, so he reached out to a fellow Harlemite that had always been a big brother figure in his life, before either were heavy in music, Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Dame Dash. Cam allegedly trashed an office at Epic, got out of his deal, and suddenly found himself with new life at what was the hottest music label in rap.

But label drama aside, to revisit Cam’s first two projects is to listen to a developing artist in search of direction. Confessions in Fire came at the tail end of the mythological, thematic, cinematic New York biography-by-album that Biggie and Puff had pioneered with Ready to Die, only it's a very perverse and strange version of one. There are horrorcore occult undertones leftover from Cam’s tenure in Children of the Corn, the album cover looks like it was torn from a paperback airport romance novel, his voice is affected as he nasally raps through hurried bars. It’s a bit of a mess. Sports, Drugs & Entertainment is positioned on similarly shaky ground. It’s Cam going street, making a few biographical, from the heart songs. He’s reaching back for anthems, and occasionally finding them, but forcing up his shots. It sounds like he thought he was making his In My Lifetime Vol. 2, but ended up with his In My Lifetime Vol. 1.

But we get glimpses of Juelz and Jim on three songs off S.D.E., and this dynamic is what will eventually lead to Cam finding his voice, and finding himself on Come Home With Me, released May 14, 2002. It’s a shadow Diplomats album, with some combination of Juelz, Jim, or Freekey Zeekey appearing on nine of the fifteen tracks. The album cover is Cam holding his son in Harlem, with shades of Illmatics iconic superimposed face. The title, and several of the songs, suggest it’s the final draft of the album Cam was working towards with his first two releases at the outset of his career, a classic New York storyteller. But Come Home With Me is not a life story, and it's not experiential in the traditional sense. It’s about a great writer falling in love with language and his craft.

What we discover on Come Home With Me is the furthest distance between any two points is a Cam verse. In a comfortable, conversational voice, with a slowed-down delivery, Cam began taking the scenic route to his punchlines, and we loved him for it. He won’t just say he’s about to kill you; he’ll tell you that your memorial will be one year from today, like a hooded and very online rap Paul Dano. His verses are largely atopical, dadaist, postmodern and post-Ghostface, following the batshit trajectory of his thought process as he makes insane and brilliant synapse leaps from setup to punchline, exclusively using multisyllabic tongue twisters that go on for entire verses, mercilessly beating on rhyming sounds like a tom-tom. Liberated from the shackles of narrative, he’s inventing new onomatopoeia on the fly, employing repetition, doing surgery on words, stitching them together like a blunted Dr. Moreau to fit them into his bars. Ideas, threats, and jokes are teased out, picked up, put down, then revisited when you least expect them, strewn through bars like breadcrumbs, held together by the most tenuous of threads but simple enough for a child to understand. Backed by the full force of the Roc-A-Fella production team at the peak of their powers including Just Blaze, Kanye West, and the Heatmakerz, it was one of the great moments in rap of a tantalizing talent finally figuring out his voice and putting it all together. The album went platinum with two monster singles and no skips. And that same year, Cam turned in one of the great performances of the aughts as a charismatic asshole archvillain in Paid In Full, the quintessential story of Harlem in the 80s, and briefly became a movie star. The Diplomats became an industry unto themselves, and the rest is history.

Here’s a question: What do Cam’ron, Dame Dash, and Sean Combs have in common? They don’t share an astrological sign; Puff and Dame are relatively the same age but Cam is younger. They don’t share an area code; Puff has generational roots in Harlem but grew up in Mount Vernon. But they do have one thing in common — they’re all irrepressible hustlers who outworked remarkable odds to become three of the most powerful and influential figures in rap. They are all flashy, magnetically charismatic, and they’re all blunt, forceful, gaping assholes. Whether from there or of there, they all embody Harlem. And that is the true innovation of Come Home With Me and what Cam captured on his Kay Slay-hosted Diplomat mixtapes, and what he’d do with subsequent releases. His project was codifying the neighborhood he grew up in, taking an idea as ephemeral and intangible as “swag” and making it an aesthetic. It’s the flow, the slang, the weaponization of the punchline, it’s the “pause,” it’s the pink. It’s comfortably, confidently weird, and it’s brilliant. It’s uptown made flesh.

As we were shaping this pitch, my editor William asked me to explain what I thought Cam’s legacy was, what impact he made on rap, and what impact Come Home With Me made on his career. And I threw out that with their I Can’t Feel My Face series, Juelz and the Diplomats essentially unlocked Wayne, got him out of his comfort zone, and made him weird and experimental in his bars like them; and in doing so, their influence blossomed beyond New York, at the same moment rap was finally leaving New York as its capital and flagship for over 30 years. Without Wayne, you don’t get Gucci Mane, or much of the stoned and bizarre rap that has come out of Atlanta over the last two decades. But what Cam accomplished with Come Home With Me is more intimate and much larger than a legacy of wordplay and spheres of influence. Cam’s true legacy, and how he changed rap and captured something important and indelible on this album, is somewhere locked in a feeling that is hard to put into words, so I’ll leave you with this.

I rode my bike to the Apollo, and after the show, I took the scenic route home. I was riding down a largely barren Morningside Avenue, on the western edge of Morningside Park, as I passed a group of teenagers hanging out next to a parked car near 116th. The Honda Accord’s passenger side door was open, and they were using the car stereo as a boombox. They were listening and bouncing to B-Lovee, a rapper who grew up two or three miles from where they were standing, who makes strange, funny, violent, and chaotic stream-of-consciousness rap music that hangs together by the most tenuous of threads over chipmunked soul. Bathed in a cone of streetlight, the kids were wearing colorful print hoodies that were all different but matched. They were tall and good looking and you could tell they were charismatic and funny and also gaping assholes. The teens — who may or may not be familiar with Come Home With Me, an album older than all of them — were all laughing at the expense of one of the kids in a way a tourist might consider hostile but is instantly recognizable to any New Yorker as a pure expression of joy and brotherhood.

They were dancing in the street.