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You know a rap album is in trouble when its best song is about irritable bowel syndrome. The song in question, “I.B.S,” which details Cam’ron’s pain and frustration living with the syndrome, is everything a great a rap song should be: funny, sad, boisterous and pissed off. It’s easy to imagine the late great Biggie Smalls doing a song like it, since he was the king of mixing stone-cold toughness and touching vulnerability. But the rest of Killa Season sounds like a rapper desperate to assure the public – and himself – that he’s really as hot as he thinks he is.

Killa Season begins with “Killa Cam (Intro),” a State of the Union of sorts in which Cam takes pains to point out his criminal connections (his brother Zeek is currently in jail on weapons charges) and takes a swipe at rival Jay-Z (“Three years ago I would have been robbing his dice game”). The song reminds me of “Losing Weight, Pt. 2” off Cam’s Roc-A-Fella debut album Come Home With Me, which is both good and bad. Good, because that song was the kind of cinematic rap song I’ll never tire of, but bad because it means Cam hasn’t really progressed much as an artist.

The best songs on Killa Season (“Leave You Alone,” “Triple-Up,” “I.B.S,” “It’s Nothing”) strike that perfect balance between Cam’s tough-guy pose and his lyrical playfulness. With a tongue-twisting flow and a flair for free association any Beat poet would have envied, Cam’ron has no problem working in references to Tony Hawk, Dora the Explorer, The Dukes of Hazzard and the anti-depression drug Paxil into a song about selling cocaine and shooting at his rivals. In an age of meat-and-potatoes gangster rappers, Cam’ron’s not afraid to be weird or flamboyant or to write a song about his bad stomach.

But Killa Season really suffers from not being on a major label. Released jointly between Asylum Records and Diplomats Records, the album often sounds like a mix CD masquerading as an album. Some of the beats on songs like “Living a Lie” and “White Chicks” sound so thin and clunky they could have been recorded on acid by a bunch of stoned guys playing with a keyboard. And far too many songs feature off-key female singers who couldn’t find a melody with a gun to their head. The chorus to “White Chicks” consists of a singer who sounds like she’s 14 singing “Papa had a dream,” over-enunciating the word “Papa” in a desperate attempt to find some sort of groove, since melody completely eludes her.

During the months after the release of Purple Haze, Cam’ron’s best album and his last for Roc-A Fella, the blogosphere took on Cam’ron and Diplomats as their pet cause. Pointing to the crew’s almost avant-garde style and their more-is-more aesthetic, music bloggers managed to create a buzz about them amongst indie rockers, indie rappers and annoying Brooklyn hipsters who read Vice and wear trucker hats. Even managed to stop drooling over The Arcade Fire and The Go Team! for a second to put Purple Haze on their top 50 albums of the year, describing Cam’s rhymes as “elaborate scrolls.”

It should be clear that Killa Season was anticipated as Cam’ron’s chance to blow up in the mainstream and start selling like his Southern compatriots T.I. and Young Jeezy. But with an album as mediocre as Killa Season, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. And that’s a real shame, since Cam is one of the most gifted rappers to have come along in the last five years.