The Week In Rap: The Indestructible Career Of Juicy J
I stopped doing Mixtape Of The Week at the exact right goddam time. Three weeks ago, when I wrote my last MOTW column, “mixtape” still meant “thing that rappers give away for free on the internet.” But now Drake is calling If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late a mixtape, even though he’s selling it for album prices and even though it just had the best one-week sales of any rap album in years. In calling IYRTITL a mixtape, Drake is making it clear that he doesn’t want anyone to confuse it with his actual album, even though it plays like an album and costs money like an album. And now, nobody knows what the fuck a mixtape even is anymore. Drake’s not the only one fucking with definitions, either; OG Maco released a 15-track free-download thing last year and called it an EP. But if things are plunging into confusion, that’s par for the course in mixtape history. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that mixtapes were actual cassette tapes with tracks mixed together on them. Things have been in flux before, and they’re in flux again. For now, though, mixtapes are still a convenient way for, among other things. established artists to keep their names out there, to keep giving music to fans when the major-label system keeps dragging its feet on cranking out actual albums. One of those stars is Juicy J, a veteran lunatic 24 years deep into his career and a man who keeps navigating changing rap trends with absolute panache. Juicy released his Blue Dream & Lean 2 mixtape earlier this week, and it goes. We could’ve never expected anything less.
I met Juicy J once. This was in summer 2008, after Juicy won a fluke Best Original Song Oscar but before he rapped about being addicted to your love on a #1 Katy Perry single. I was at a pizza place across the street from the offices of the Village Voice, where I was working at the time, and Juicy couldn’t have been more obvious if he’d had been carrying a lit-up neon sign that said “JUICY J OF THREE 6 MAFIA” and pointing it at his own face. I am absolutely awful at recognizing non-NBA celebrities in public, mostly because you all just look like short people to me. But you couldn’t miss Juicy. He was wearing a T-shirt that said, in gigantic letters “I LOVE HAVING SEX” on the front and “BUT I’D RATHER GET SOME HEAD” on the back. (The Three 6 Mafia single “I’d Rather” had just come out and flopped.) I’d interviewed Juicy on the phone a couple of times, but he’s done a million phone interviews, and he’s terrible at them. Seeing him at my pizza spot was something else. I approached him cautiously, asked for a picture, and took my first-ever selfie. It’s really bad.
See? Terrible. You can’t even tell that’s him. Anyway. Point is: Juicy wanted to be noticed. He’s always wanted to be noticed. It’s a tendency that’s served him well. Years ago, before much of his current audience was born, Juicy was a Memphis party DJ and half of the team that formed the nucleus of the pioneering horror-crunk collective Three 6 Mafia. Even on those early Three 6 records, he established himself as a bleary-eyed, drug-gobbling, attention-seeking party monster. These days, that tendency has given him a second or third or fourth life. He’s the drunk uncle who barges onto major pop hits, demands alcohol and/or head, and disappears 16 bars later. In the right circumstance, he’s a benign turn-up presence, and the role he plays these days isn’t too different from the one that Lil Jon currently holds down. But unlike Jon and so many other aging rap figures who have adapted the drunk-uncle persona, Juicy has kept some semblance of the dangerous, unstable air that’s followed him since his beginnings. He’s a rare beast now: A man capable of gladhanding music-business titans at the Grammys and then, one weeks label, dropping a mixtape where he threatens to cut your fingers off over a humid old soul sample.
Blue Dream & Lean 2 isn’t the sinister stab-your-face music that Juicy came up making, and it’s not the simplistic make-that-ass-clap music that Juicy was making on the first Blue Dream & Lean in 2011, but it still has plenty of both. Juicy is an adaptable rapper with a deep and authoritarian voice. His delivery tends to sound great no matter what type of beat he’s rapping over, which is a huge part of the reason he’s been around this long. When Three 6 Mafia had finally fallen apart and Juicy came roaring back to relevance a few years ago, it was thanks to a pair of mixtapes with then-hot producer Lex Luger. Luger was enough of a fan to know that Juicy’s music had made a huge impact on his anthemic cannon-blast beats, and Juicy was canny enough to know that Luger was hot enough to launch him into the comeback zone. (Those two tapes are great, too, so maybe they just wanted to make some good rap music.) But Juicy’s comeback hit another level when he started rapping over the warm, gooey synth melodies of Mike Will Made-It, who gave Juicy his first-ever major solo hit with “Bandz A Make Her Dance.” Mike Will is all over Blue Dream & Lean 2, and Juicy’s voice sounds strong when contrasted against young chirpers like K Camp or the Rae Sremmurd kids. But Juicy also co-produced much of the tape himself, and it’s still built around bass tones that could cave in your ribcage.
There are moments on Blue Dream & Lean 2 where Juicy sounds like an actual adult. On “All I Need,” he’s reminiscing about Three 6’s DIY comeback, about selling his car for studio time. On “Don’t,” he’s trying angry we-will-loot-your-town version of a hands-up-don’t-shoot anthem. (Juicy can be a secretly great political rapper when he’s in the mood. Check him out rapping furiously about Hurricane Katrina on Chrome’s album-ending “H.C.P.” posse cut in 2005.) But he reaches full flight when he’s at his most ignorant. The song’s greatest banger is “I’m Sicka,” on which Juicy growls about your extreme inferiority over horns that sound like they’re bubbling up from the Mariana Trench, bringing a crazy staggered flow: “Homi! Cide! Unit! Said it! Must be! Foul! Motherfuckingplay!” And on “Denna Bitch,” Juicy and his fellow-legend brother Project Pat claim to have more hooks and whips, respectively, than a dominatrix and a dominatrix. Juicy also brags that he’ll “close a deal with a cartel on my speakerphone in the shower,” which is just an awesome image.
Juicy’s a successful-enough rapper that he doesn’t need to be making mixtapes. He could’ve released Blue Dream & Lean 2 as a retail album, and after he sees Drake’s sales figures, maybe he’ll wish that’s what he did. But Blue Dream & Lean 2 doesn’t have any of the pop concessions that major-label albums are expected to have now. And I’m just happy Juicy can still make music like this. It keeps him young. Juicy’s supposedly exec-producing the next A$AP Rocky album, and it’s a good look for everyone. Juicy J, after all, has great taste in tastelessness.
Download Blue Dream & Lean 2 at DatPiff.
FIVE DEADLY VENOMS
Iamsu! – “Nothin Less”
Iamsu! was making breezy, propulsive party raps over clipped, minimal tracks before the recent wave of West Coast rap really popped off, so it’s cool to hear him finally linking up with DJ Mustard, the king of that wave. But Iamsu! is also half a backpacker, with a sweet melodic drawl and a tendency to rap about working hard to achieve your dreams. So it’s even cooler to hear Mustard meeting him halfway, trying his hand at the woozy tinkling aesthetic of Iamsu!’s HBK Gang crew. They fit well together.
Young Greatness – “Real Niggas Back” (Feat. Uncle Murda)
Young Greatness is a New Orleans rapper who I know nothing about. He has a generic name and a flow that I couldn’t pick out of a lineup. But he got hilarious unreformed Brooklyn hardhead Uncle Murda to rap explosively over a beautifully flipped Sufjan Stevens sample, so he’s OK by me. Uncle Murda over Sufjan Stevens, man. These are amazing times we’re living through.
Metro Thuggin – “Free Gucci”
After Gucci Mane went to prison and his 1017 Bricksquad label kept Young Thug trapped in contract limbo and released every piece of archival music he’d left behind, I figured things were not so good between Thug and his old mentor. So I’m happy to hear Thug paying Gucci tribute at this late date. I’m also happy to hear him rapping about being Harry Potter on a broom, drinking lean and eating shrooms, over a Metro Boomin that floats an operatic themerin whine over dazed synth bleeps. That Metro Thuggin mixtape really, really needs to come out.
GrandeMarshall – “Make It Count” (Feat. Pauly Sue)
GrandeMarshall is a Fool’s Gold affiliate from Philly whose 2013 mixtape Mugga Man failed to leave much of an impression on me. But I like his queasy Eeyore singsong on this one almost as much as I like the underwater glide of Ben Pramuk and SamGreenS’ beat. Guest rapper Pauly Sue wins MVP, though, for delivering an entire verse while apparently 75% asleep. It’s a neat trick.
Remy Banks – “rem” (Feat. Nasty Nigel)
The beat comes from Odd Future member and actual Californian Left Brain, but its effect is pure mid-’90s Beatnuts/Capone-N-Noreaga Queens screwface. And while these two guys from the Queens crew World’s Fair are more likely to make good-natured party songs than to resurrect the old razorblade-to-your-face spirit of their borough, they jump right the fuck on board.