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Meet Cam, the Idiosyncratic Rapper Telling Stories Through Music

Born from the streets, rap/hip-hop often features confrontational lyrics and intense performances. But to Lê Văn Toàn, who goes by the stage name Cam, rap is like a canvas to bare his heart; chronicle the many stories that he has witnessed and imagined; and express the feelings that surface after watching a good film or book.

Nearly ten years ago, Cam won over the hearts of audiences and even reduced them to tears thanks to his talent for telling stories through music. Over the last two years, instead of tugging on the audience’s heartstrings, Cam instead started incorporating humor into his music. ‘Đâu vào đó,’ released in 2019, introduced me to Cam’s unique style, but I’ve only become a fan whilst digging through his previous works.

Music as a storytelling device

Có chiếc xe cửa sổ trong veo / A vehicle with transparent windows

Đưa hồn ai bay đi qua vèo / dashes by with a soul inside

— 'Trong Veo' by Cam

4:42pm — rush hour turns Saigon even more tightly packed than it already is. Thrust between the slow-moving throngs of people is a single ambulance housing someone crying, someone lying still, someone staring into space, and someone trying to find a detour. Tragically, the trip to the hospital takes too long; the motionless girl in the white wedding dress couldn’t wait any longer. Her soul departs through the ambulance window, leaving behind her fiancé, his tears and the promises that they made after five years together.

“Sài Gòn giờ tan tầm đâu ai muốn mình về sau / No one wants to lag behind during rush hour in Saigon." Sometimes, slowing down a few minutes can mean saving a life. Each verse, each word in the piece touches me, pulling me into that chaotic moment, witnessing and feeling the same pain as the man who just lost his lover.

Cam and his talent for storytelling through rap have left many in tears.

Right after 'Trong Veo' (Transparent), I found Cam’s other tracks and got sucked into his narrative universe. Take '100 Ngày Hạ' for example. Inspired by Marc Webb’s 500 Days of Summer, the song contains the unrequited feelings that Thanh, a xe ôm driver, has for Trang Hạ, a postal worker. As the soft beats of the song go on, several moments in the movie flash through my eyes. After its release in 2013, the song is not only loved by long-time fans, but also new listeners. On YouTube, Cam uploaded a simple clip that couldn’t take more than minutes to make, yet it has managed to amass 1.8 million views so far..

The young artist not only finds inspiration through the stories around him, but also his imagination. ‘Bắt cóc’ (Kidnap) is one of those cases. Despite the name, it’s not about human trafficking or extortion, but serves up the image of a beautiful family ravaged by an accident. Cam is not sure himself what pushed him to write such a deeply emotional track.

He told Saigoneer: “The whole story is fictional. It wasn't until much later that I realized that there was a real accident like that in Dong Nai in 1982. I was shocked upon finding out about this unexpected coincidence.” The emotional story is told on a relaxing and moving lo-fi beat. Because of that, ‘Bắt cóc’ is also the song that Cam likes to perform the most. To an artist, what’s happier than when the audience can share the same vibe with you?

Two years of writer’s block and a shocking comeback

Cam experienced a “hibernation” that lasted two years. Through this period, he stayed silent due to a slump in songwriting. “That was the first time I got a creative block, so anxiety followed after and I found the whole thing very frightening. Now, I have a dry spell sometimes, but it’s just a normal feeling. Just live and play for a while and I’m happy again, how silly of me! When I finished writing ‘Đâu Vào Đó’ in 2019 was also when the block went away. The song’s name, meaning ‘Things fall into place,’ is like a sigh of relief. For a moment, I was scared I had become useless,” he joked.

In 2019, with ‘Đâu vào đó,’ the young rapper surprised fans with a meticulously crafted track, bolstered by a music video with high production values. This time, Cam is no longer telling stories from the outside looking in, instead he is bringing his own being into the music. To Cam, music is a great platform for catharsis and any problem can be resolved with a shrug. The song marked a turning point in his style, signifying a newfound maturity.

'Đâu vào đó’ marked Cam’s comeback, presenting a whole new style.

Witnessing this change, some might think that he’s still the same old Cam: laid-back but contemplative. And yet, there are some who prefer the Cam of yesteryear because his music seems more indifferent, edgier, and quite critical now. Amidst polarizing views, Cam explained: “I get where they come from because the thing people remember the strongest is their first impression. A big part of my audience found me through my soft, romantic songs. But that also means I have many opportunities to surprise my audience with different facets of my personality. I like surprises in music, and I want to do the same for my listeners.”

Both now and before, it’s obvious that the rapper has never invested much in a flashy music video. Instead, his videos usually just feature him rapping to himself. Almost all the clips uploaded on his YouTube channel are static images with lyrics. “To me, the sound and visual need to synergize with each other. If I make a simple track but the MV is too fancy, then it just feels out of place. I’m trying to master the simple stuff before I can move on to something more complex,” Cam explained.

After ‘Đâu vào đó,’ the rapper continued to excite fans with a number of new tracks in this short, comedic and interesting style, like 'Đây nè,' 'Sá Xị Chương Dương,' 'Anh làm sao á?', 'Malloween,' and 'Thêm một dấu phẩy.' “I know my music in the past used to make people cry, so now I’ll just make you guys laugh as compensation,” he declared.

Most of Cam’s newest tracks are barely two minutes long; they focus more on the beat, and on getting listeners to sway along or laugh out loud thanks to cheeky lyrics — like joking around with the homies.

For now, Cam will stick to making simple music videos, with funny and quirky shots.

Getting to enjoy new music on a regular basis, many fans anticipate that Cam is hiding a big project in the making, like an album or an EP. On this, Cam hinted: “I'm still in the middle of making a compilation called ‘Rap cho vui’ (Rap for fun) — just like the name, sometimes I rap for fun when I’m bored, though I’m not sure they’re about anyone or anything, really.” On not having any album released despite being in the scene for more than 10 years, Cam said: “Currently, I’m still growing up. At this stage, I feel that there are many changes to my mindset and emotions. My music grows with me. Now us two ‘brothers’ are a bit more mature, so our bond is more in tune and effective. So I guess now’s a good time?”

Cam also revealed to Saigoneer that he’s learning how to be a producer: “I want to improve my ability to turn ideas into creations. I’m also practicing my rap skills more, especially with new sounds. For other skills, I want to find and work with other professionals so I can focus on music.”

In recent years, Cam has collaborated with unique and idiosyncratic personalities like DJ Teddy Chilla, Quỳnh and Andre Ngo. Right now, he’s hoping to collaborate with Suboi, because he feels that their music has many similarities. “In the long run, there are a lot [of potential collaborators], such as Steve Lacy. This dude is about my age and he has a similar approach to music to mine.”

Stepping out of the comfort zone to further develop music production skills.

To an artist, having a chance to renew yourself but still retain your audience’s acceptance is a great triumph. To a young musician with a sense of humor like Cam, no matter how much listeners love the solemn, profound stories from before, he can’t follow the same path forever. Now, there are many shades in Cam's repertoire, from introspective to witty and lighthearted. With all these plans in place to improve himself, Cam is committed to perfecting his craft and widening his range. Not too concerned about getting famous or projecting a fancy image, Cam is like an interesting friend that many would like to get close to. Someone whose every statement will make you laugh, nod in understanding, or even ruminate on with great respect.

Quãng 8, which means "octave" in Vietnamese, is a series of articles on Vietnam's new generation of unique music personalities. Know an interesting musician and want to introduce them to our readers? Send us an email via contribute@saigoneer.com with your ideas.

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