OPINION: The Harlem duo’s 1997 debut album is a beautiful mix of soulful sampling, abstract slanguistics and effervescent style on wax.
I used to manage a nightclub in Washington, D.C., called Liv (not to be confused with the famous Miami nightclub). Many years ago, we put on a show for Camp Lo—I want to say it must have been 2012. They performed, nearly in its entirety, their debut classic album, Uptown Saturday Night (and some songs from their immediate followup, Let’s Do It Again). Now, in 2012, you’d probably think that almost everybody was there to hear one song and one song only, “Luchini AKA This Is It,” the classic, Ski-produced banger (he did their entire first album) that Jay-Z famously tried to get for his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, allegedly with a briefcase full of cash.
But the truth is the fans that were there, well, they rocked with EVERYTHING Camp Lo did. I joked after the show that you’d think it was 1997 all over again or that the Jacksons had walked into the building. The energy was palpable; people rocked with Camp Lo like they were literally the greatest rap group that ever lived. I still remember being pleasantly surprised by the response and engagement. And every song they did from Uptown Saturday Night? It might as well have been Stevie Wonder in there performing songs from Songs in the Key of Life.
Or at least it would have been if anybody truly knew all the words to their songs. And I say this with the utmost appreciation and admiration for the swag, a one-of-one swag, that Camp Lo brought to the table: Uptown Saturday Night is a pure classic, and I have no clue what in the hell they’re saying or talking about 99 percent of the time.
Even on “Luchini,” even 25 years after the song came into my life and never left, I couldn’t spit those verses if my life depended on it because I don’t know what they’re talking about. Sure I know lines, parts of lines and the hook. But I genuinely don’t know what the song is about. What I do know is that “flow is life, and you can’t get enough of this.” Because this is it, what!?! Luchini is pouring from the sky.
Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede of Camp Lo perform at Santos Party House on August 16, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage)
And it’s not just that one song; it’s the whole album. It’s beautiful. The album is produced in a lush fashion, the hip-hop version of that Barry White/Love Unlimited music from the 1970s. And Geechi Suede and Sonny Cheeba sound perfect over the beats. I say sound because, again, I have no idea what they’re talking about, but it sounds like their verses are the perfect verses for those songs. For instance, the song “Sparkle” could jam in any coffeehouse or jazz club on the planet. It’s so pleasant, it’s enrapturing. I have no idea what this song is about. It’s not for a lack of trying; well, that’s not true; I stopped trying to discern what the songs were about years ago. I’m listening to “Sparkle” right now, and I get lost early in the song. I stopped even reading the lyrics on Genius because it just didn’t seem necessary at some point.
That speaks to the classicness of this album. It still sounds as good today as it did when I purchased it back in 1997 (with my own money earned at Papa John’s; that meant something when I was 17 years old). You can hop in the whip and throw on “Black Nostaljack AKA Come On” and jam all the way to wherever you’re going with a perfect head nod and shoulder sway. I’m listening to THAT right now, and I am about to pick up my kid to dance with him. He’ll be confused, but he’ll be alright. But if you ask me what this song is about, I will assume nostalgia of Blackness and flyness (since they say “get fly”) over and over at the end, but really, it could be about anything.
I’m sure all of their songs make sense, and there are people who can recite the lyrics with ease, whether wearing platform shoes with fish in them or not. I am not one of them; I’ve been confused and bemused with their lyricism for 25 years now, and if I’m being honest, it’s probably why their later albums didn’t quite resonate with me. I only like to be cursed out in slang so many times before I take my ball and go home. If you are able to understand Camp Lo, I respect it. I can’t quite make things out, but it hasn’t changed my love or appreciation.
Uptown Saturday Night is still an album I will throw into the whip (well, pull up on Spotify) and ride out to. When I make an album about my life, “Coolie High” will definitely be on the soundtrack (not for nothing, this is the song I think I understand the most). That’s the mark of a true classic—longevity. And 25 years later, Uptown Saturday Night is still one of my favorite albums, even if I don’t know what the album is really about aside from being Black and swaggy.
Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest) but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said “Unknown” (Blackest).
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