[1 October 2007]
“Fighting broke out overnight between rival factions along the Israeli-Syrian border. Initial reports claim Israeli jet fighters bombed a guerrilla base, killing at least 49 soldiers and 13 civilians…”
If nothing else, you have to give Chamillionaire credit for ambition. The above-quoted international news report is how the Houston rapper, famous mostly for last year’s Weird Al-parodied ringtone favorite “Ridin’”, opens his sophomore album. The track’s called “The Morning News”, and includes Cham waxing critical on, among other subjects, the Rosie O’ Donnell-Donald Trump feud (“nonsense”) and Bill O’ Reilly (“an idiot”). Later on the record, he bookends the opener with the more topical “The Evening News”, which is much too heavy-handed for its own good—the sing-songy chorus uses high gas prices and dropout rates seemingly as evidence of impending Armageddon—yet nevertheless includes a couple good barbs. There’s “You know I can’t talk about Katrina / ‘cause every time I talk about Katrina / they look at me like it’s a misdemeanor”. And then, for good measure: “George Bush is playing golf / everybody hush / he’s about to put.”
As far as hip-hop polemics go, there’s nothing here as incendiary as Juvenile’s “Get Ya Hustle On”, and Chamillionaire lacks Kanye’s lightning rod swagger; he may be trying too hard (“Call George Bush’s daughter / I’ll sell her Katrina water / just to get at her father,” he raps on “You Must Be Crazy”) but at least he’s trying. Tangentially, a little while back, I saw a homeless man holding a sign that read “drug free and I’m trying”, which really hit me on a gut level—‘cause trying counts for a lot, or should anyway. Here, Cham seems to be implicitly offering: “watching Keith Olbermann and The Daily Show and I’m trying”. Good for him.
Still, this unexpected foray into hot-button politics may be the big story on Ultimate Victory, but it’s not the best reason to buy the album. Nor are the first pair of singles. “Hip Hop Police”, with Slick Rick, feels like third-rate 50 Cent filler backed by a would-be “cinematic“, faux-Dre beat. More disappointingly, “The Bill Collecta” reteams Cham with “Ridin’” collaborator Krayzie Bone to little effect. Where the earlier track firmly lodged in its way in your head (and tended to stay there for weeks), the new one is instantly forgettable, a clunky, overproduced piece of affected paranoia. My wife, who likes it more than I do, acutely observed that it’s interesting to hear a rap song where the rappers in question are freaked out by the same collection agencies that call and harass the rest of us at odd hours. She has a point, but this potentially clever concept is lost to muddled execution.
Instead, the reasons to give Ultimate Victory a listen come when Chamillionaire isn’t giving himself a hernia in attempts to make grand statements or duplicate the success of his breakthrough hit. Thankfully, there are numerous such moments. In fact, they make up the better half of the record.
“Industry Groupie” plays like Chamillionaire’s answer to “Golddigger” or Eminem’s “Superman” or The Game’s “Wouldn’t Get Far” (or, you know, any song where a rapper disses women who like to sleep with rappers). The song flirts with misogyny, but Cham has the good sense (and humor) not to cross the line. Behind the confident flow and triumphant beats (courtesy, hilariously, of Europe’s “The Final Countdown”—it actually works!), there’s essentially just hurt feelings and sour grapes. “I thought you were in love with me,“ he chants over the hook, “but obviously you’re just a groupie”. (“Obviously”? Evidently, she duped you, dude.) Further proof, at any rate, that emo rap isn’t a phenomenon limited to the Atmospheres of the genre.
Better yet, “The Ultimate Vacation” rides a feather-light, quasi-Caribbean groove, as Cham coos, “We can hit Jamaica or we can chill in France”. This is more the sort of thing that Sean Paul does well, but Cham nails it. It’s a lovely seduction song, even if doesn’t necessarily say anything we haven’t heard countless times before—e.g., “I’m rich and can, thus, fly you off to myriad exotic locales”. I, for one, eagerly await its future as an ad jingle for Travelocity or Priceline (“we could get awaaaay…”).
“Rock Star”, produced by the late, great Disco D, is the set’s strongest banger. The beat is fantastic; there’s so much going on—stuttering synths, ominous keyb plinks, pep rally bleacher stomping. Listening to this bold, brilliant track only makes it all the more depressing that such a promising, inventive talent decided to end his own young life. On a brighter note, artist-of-the-year contender Lil Wayne shows up for a guest verse. That’s always a good thing.
Best of all is the title track, which closes the record. Over a gorgeous, Asian-flavored composition by Happy Perez (who also produced “Pimp Mode” and “Rocky Road”, both top-shelf keepers), Chamillionaire sounds every bit as commanding and dominant as his record’s title would indicate. The music’s wistful gravitas supplies Cham with the ideal backdrop for philosophical nuggets (“I’m a Spartan, go ahead and throw your spear / slap failure in the face and still show no fear”) that, with less dramatic accompaniment, would likely sound hollow and kind of lame. And it’s not just a damn good rap record’s high point; more crucially, it’s convincing proof that there might, after all, be life after “Ridin’” for a rapper who previously seemed bound for one-hit wonder status.