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Why Cam'ron’s Hey Ma is

Peak Nostalgia

My ten-year high school reunion is this November, and I’m in charge of the playlist for the evening's formalities.

As a self proclaimed hip-hop savant, I think I know what 50 Cent, Clipse and Ciara tracks will take us back to those carefree, awkward, and promising years at Fred C. Beyer High.

I took about 150 of the top songs from 2001-2005 and culled them down to sixteen tracks.

There were many iconic tracks from that era. One cannot forget 50 Cent’s hits, Jay-Z’s two Blueprint albums, The Clipse’s “Grindin’” and “When’s The Last Time” or any of the bangers from Lil Jon.

But Cam’ron’s “Hey Ma” is the highlight of my list. The song is like that great friend from high school – the one you haven’t seen in years. You’re ecstatic to see and hug them. You want to catch up on what you’ve been up to since school. You both laugh and high five as you reminisce about the innocence of adolescence and the seemingly infinite potential of life after high school.

Like that high school friend, you probably haven’t heard “Hey Ma” in a while.

I tested my hypothesis with co-workers during a trip from Monterrey to San Francisco. During a three hour bus ride, we had the chance to play some good jams. I did my best to combine fan favorites (such as 112, Faith Evans and pretty much every other mid 90’s Bad Boy artist) with new hits like A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake.

Whenever I’m in charge or responsible for the music selection, I love the moment just before the next song begins. I’m the only one who knows what song is coming next, and I cannot wait until I see the crowd’s reaction.

So as I queued up “Hey Ma”, I was both excited and nervous to see how my coworkers would react.

Once the familiar piano medley began, there was a deafening silence. I panicked and thought to myself, “I have John Legend. Everyone loves John Legend. What’s that John Legend song everyone likes?!”

But after a few seconds, they let out a collective and emphatic “oooooooh”- like a Steph Curry just hit a three to win the game type of “ooooooh!” We sang louder and with more enthusiasm than we had for any other song.

It’s been thirteen years since its release. So why does “Hey Ma” warrant such a reaction?

The Nostalgia of "Hey Ma"

We all experienced Cam’ron’s brief period of fame, but it’s lost in time.

“Hey Ma” was a popular song. It peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Top 100, and then Cam’ron stagnated, never ascending like other rappers of the day. It was played so much and so often at the time of release, be it school dances, the radio, football games or house parties, that anyone who grew up in that time frame vividly remembers hearing it.

And that’s the ingredient for a high school reunion playlist: cultural touchstones that everyone knows, but doesn't actively think about.

We've already used Spotify plays to measure the popularity of older music, so let's quantify nostalgia too: tracks that were popular in their day (ranking high on Billboard), but rarely played today (fewer plays on Spotify), and we’ll see where “Hey Ma” stands relative to other tracks of its era.

Identifying Nostalgia Tracks: to

What makes a song nostalgic? One theory: tracks that were popular in their day (high billboard rank) and largely forgotten today (fewer spotify plays) – the nostalgia zone in the chart below.

*Songs that charted on the Billboard Hot 100 (via the Whitburn project). Some artists (notably, The Beatles, Taylor Swift) are not in Spotify.

Tracks matching your criteria

98th - 99th percentile performance on Billboard, year of release

98th to 99th plays on Spotify, 2014

Years: 2002 - 2003

total matches: 66 tracks

“Hey Ma” sits at an interesting precipice: a popular song in 2002 (but not an annoying fad), while also fading from culture by 2015 – the recipe for nostalgia.

So why didn’t Cam’ron and “Hey Ma” stick around in culture?

"Hey Ma" Was OverShadowed By Greatness

First we must understand the song’s creator. Cam’ron is a good rapper (albeit a mediocre vocabulary size) and the leader of The Diplomats. He’s developed a cult following that has celebrated and wallowed over his unorthodox rhymes and peculiar personality. But as entertaining and good as Cam’ron is, he was never great. And “Hey Ma” emerged in an era of great rappers. Cam’ron, at the time of the song’s release, was a sixth man: a good but not great player.

Come With Me was released in May, 2002. It was certified platinum and without a doubt one of the top selling records of 2002. But look at who else released albums in that time-frame: Nelly and Eminem, who had the top selling albums in 2002.

The Eminem Show sold more than 1.3 million albums its first week. Nelly came in second with just over 700,000 albums sold. Later in the year, Jay Z would release The Blueprint 2: The Gift and The Curse.

And it didn’t stop there. In 2003, 50 Cent would drop Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Jay Z would release his swan song, The Black Album and Outkast would get on the scoresheet with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.

Not only were these great albums, but they came from great rappers. Jay Z, Outkast and 50 Cent, and Eminem are still in the cultural ethos. People are still talking about them. Sure – some for dubious reasons, but these artists have grown their body of work since 2002.

The Rapid Ascent, Fall Of Cam’ron

Cam’ron meanwhile, was never able to ascend in a similar fashion. His 2004 follow up, Purple Haze was his apex. A grandiose, fun album, that Pitchfork placed amongst its list of Top 200 Albums of the 2000’s.

What happened after that? A split from Roc a Fella, beef with Jay Z and so-so subsequent releases. Killa Season and Crime Pays, released in 2006 and 2009, respectively didn’t match the acclaim nor the sales of his previous efforts.

Cam’ron was always a good rapper, but he was surrounded by legends and burgeoning talents (Kanye West released the College Dropout in February of 2004, ten months before Purple Haze). Cam’ron was a victim of the era he rapped in.

(A young Kanye West makes an appearance on “Get Em Girls”, a single from Cam’s Purple Haze)

Hey Ma conjures magical feelings because it’s trapped in a particular moment of hip hop, and thus, in our lives.

The song was incredibly popular at its release, but has wanned in popularity over the years, mostly because of Cam’ron’s trajectory. Meanwhile, songs such as “In Da Club”, “Ignition”, and “Lose Yourself” are omnipresent – their association with the early 2000’s is much weaker.

“Hey Ma” is in a time capsule, taking us back to the years of popcorn chicken, Abercrombie and Fitch, Sadie Hawkins dances and PSAT Courses, which makes it the unanimous choice to serve as the soundtrack to a reunion. I mean, what else would you want to talk about ten years after high-school?