Hip-hop is forward-looking by design. While rappers constantly utilize samples culled from obscure 1970s soul classics, mainstream rap rarely features dudes spitting hot, nostalgic verses. Since its inception, hip-hop has been all about the here and now, about current status and living in the interminable moment. Apparently Camp Lo never got the memo. On Uptown Saturday Night -- a nostalgia-laced record right down to the Cosby-movie-cribbing title -- Lo members Geechi Suede and Sonny Cheeba succeed at using the past to further a clear, cool musical statement; for the same reason, however, they sometimes fall oddly flat.
Uptown was released in 1997, around the time that Wu-Tang Forever came out and jokers like Mace and Puff Daddy ruled the hip-hop airwaves; Camp Lo fell somewhere in-between. Although labels like No Limit put out some grit, most of the harder gangsta rap had yet to become truly mainstream. It was the perfect time for a record like Uptown, with its near total lack of profanity and softish, inoffensive sound. It's not surprising that "Coolie High" became a radio hit, with its Janet Jackson sample and sexxxy-smooth lyrics; of course, as is often the case, it's one of the album's weakest songs. Much more successful are jams like "Swing," which revels in hard knocks and delivers a few funny, pithy lines -- like the one about "Forrest Gump niggas with shades and S-curls" -- over a strong, shuffling beat.
About the beats: Uptown's biggest strength is undoubtedly its production. Ski, hot off his work on Jay-Z's stellar breakout Reasonable Doubt, provides the backing tracks for all but one song, and the results are mostly extraordinary. The songs, like those on Doubt, are fluid and organic, though a bit more staccato, a bit more concise. "Krystal Karrington" opens the record with a terse, booming bass line that evokes a sort of tension unfortunately absent on the rest of the record -- an edgy red herring on an otherwise laid-back record.
The rest of Uptown is staunchly focused in its nostalgia -- nearly every sample used here originated sometime between 1970 and 1980. Even the record's cover is a visual homage to a painting portrayed on a Marvin Gaye album jacket and in the opening credits to Good Times. When it comes to time and place, Camp Lo ain't messing around.
The lyrics follow suit. Much of the time, they deliver the sort of nonsensical word associations one might expect to read in George Clinton's personal diary. Lines like "Above the aquapool/ Hovercrafts teleport my lubricant/ Golden axe, who's the drunken monk/ Uno delegate" pepper the album, and although their weirdness threatens to drag some songs down, Suede and Cheeba's unique tone and rapid-fire delivery somehow keep them afloat. At times it's as if the pair care more about the actual sound of their lyrics than the ideas behind them. In this respect, one could draw the line to The Beats, although Cheeba and Suede might remain dubious about the comparison. It is clear their allegiance lies a decade or two later, with Clinton, Sly Stone, and the other weirdo funksters of the 70s.
Their insistence on remaining committed to such a narrow musical framework ultimately keeps Uptown Saturday Night from reaching true classic status. While the album is mainly creative and enjoyable, it suffers from an over-utilization of the same old musical and lyrical clichés. Thus, Camp Lo's experiment in time and place becomes somewhat self-defeating: what initially seemed like something fresh and different becomes dangerously close to self-parody by the end of the record. That Cheeba and Suede would go on to guest on Will Smith's Big Willie Style is entirely beside the point, but it belies another limitation of Uptown, which is its general mildness. On the other hand, in a famously fast and forward-looking genre, sometimes a time machine is a wonderful thing to have.
1. Krystal Karrington
2. Luchini AKA This is It
3. Park Joint
4. B-Side to Hollywood
5. Killin' Em Softly
7. Black Connection
9. Rockin' It AKA Spanish Harlem
10. Say Word
11. Negro League
12. Nicky Barnes AKA It's Alright
13. Black Nostaljack AKA Come On
14. Coolie High
15. Sparkle [Mr. Midnight Mix]