One man's garbage is still trash
Everything about Kamal seems fabricated. It starts with the cover of his CD, where he’s standing in front of a BMW with the license plate RJBLOCK. Staring menacingly into the camera, he impersonates a pimp, but it’s forced. He’s wearing dress pants, a fedora, and a leather jacket last seen in the ‘80s. Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, Nas…all the people he emulates achieve it effortlessly. If there is one thing this album reeks of, it’s effort, the try hard kind.
Over the course of its 20-year history, the ghetto posture has been central to hip-hop’s success. In order to sell records, you had three choices: threaten middle-class America, make ‘em laugh, or teach them how to dance. Each choice carries its own ghetto iconography. Without their cache of automatic weapons, jheri curls, and dark shades, Eazy-E and the gang are about as threatening as Wayne Brady; Ludacris clearly owns buffoonery with his use of exaggerated stereotypes; with Fergie, the Black Eyed Peas were finally able to bring their b-boy stance to the mainstream with success. Kamal has a stance too, but it’s wooden. He exhibits all the right iconography: he has a Mustang and a Beemer, he strikes the right poses, says “bling bling” as though it were 2000, and he worships the almighty dollar. But, as Biggie Smalls once said, “It’s unbelievable.”
Hip-hop took root in the concrete jungles of the inner city. So it’s a risky maneuver, however honest, to name your album Suburbia, after your childhood stomping grounds, a place that produces fewer platinum-selling rap artists per capita than the ghettos and housing projects of South Central Los Angeles or New York. Suburbia is NBC’s Desperate Housewives. Suburbia is white picket fences, nuclear families with nannies, and the realization of the American dream. Kamal’s rhymes have little in common with suburbia, which is confusing. He claims to have done it all from slinging crack rocks to attending college and making legal money, at one point saying he made a lot of it without rap. Born and raised in New Jersey, he’s a P.I.M.P in every sense of the word, but this john’s not buying his tricks.
His flow, while gruff and relaxed, is uninspiring and downright tedious. The lyrics aren’t just derivative, they’re worse than the Nintendo Power Glove rhymes I used to write on napkins in elementary school. On “Who da Man” Kamal addresses these concerns. Witness the ingenuity of rhymes such as “Who da man that make gay girls go back in the closet” or “Kicking asses and taking names/put your money down and I don’t make change/cuz I’m the man wrecking mics today”. It doesn’t end there. For your dollar you get the potent hip-hop quotable, “I got clout like the chief of police/If you fuck with me you’re gonna get deceased/when I come to town these weak suckas all run/cuz I’m the one wrecking mics for fun” or, “I take emcees out like I’m popping a zit”. I’ve heard better rhymes on Sesame Street. Then he has the nerve to ask, “Who da man talking all that junk you better make sure you know his name”. In this case, junk should read garbage and not in the sense of one’s man garbage being another man’s treasure.
Suburbia feels old, and not in that nostalgic, “do you remember how it was back in the old school” way—I mean old like washed up, “thanks for coming out, here’s a ribbon to acknowledge that you participated”. Occasionally, however fleeting, the stripped-down beats (as on “Drive”) show a sliver of hope, but the lyrics continually obscure any attempt at sheer enjoyment on what is already a rotten album. Kamal’s objective is “to form a joint venture with an establish label to obtain commercial airplay, pressing and distribution”. I hate to bust this hallucinatory vision, but that objective is a pipe dream and crack sales just ain’t what they used to be.