Duke Deuce Turns Crunk Nostalgia Into Something Beautiful
The current #1 song in America isn’t Memphis rap, but it wants to be Memphis rap so badly. Drake’s new album Honestly, Nevermind is mostly a full-length exploration of house and club music styles, but it ends with “Jimmy Cooks,” the LP’s one full-on rap song. “Jimmy Cooks” opens with an echoing, repeating sample of “Just Awaken Shaken,” a ghostly seven-minute dirge that stands as a classic of the Memphis underground. Local hero Playa Fly, a man who’s only been intermittently active in recent years, released “Just Awaken Shaken” in 1995 — the same year that he left Three 6 Mafia and the same year that he turned 18. When “Just Awaken Shaken” came out, it couldn’t have been any further from the pop charts. Now, it serves as the spine of a straight-up chart-topping hit.
In a vacuum, it’s wild that an ancestral Memphis crunk track could have a chart impact decades after it first came out. But when you consider the current rap climate, it makes perfect sense. When Drake put “Jimmy Cooks” on Honestly, Nevermind, he was hedging his bets, ending a potentially divisive record by going back to a sound that he knew people liked. Drake and 21 Savage have done this before. Last year, they kicked off their hit “Knife Talk” with a Project Pat verse taken from a recent-ish A$AP Rocky record, and they spent the rest of the track doing their takes on Pat’s flows and subject matter. Three 6 Mafia, the group that once counted Playa Fly as an original member, have aged into industry legends, inspirations for entire generations of underground rap. That whole sound just hasn’t gotten old.
It hasn’t stopped, either. Two and a half years ago, the Memphis rapper Duke Deuce broke out with the viral hit “Crunk Ain’t Dead.” It’s a hammering anthem with a simple thesis: “Crunk ain’t dead, crunk ain’t dead, crunk ain’t dead, ho.” Duke Deuce would know better than most people. He literally grew up with crunk; in the ’90s, his father Duke Nitty was a producer for Memphis underground stars like Gangsta Blac. The message of “Crunk Ain’t Dead” was entirely correct. Crunk, the churning and thundering style that began in Memphis and went big-time in early-’00s Atlanta, has never really gone away. It keeps coming back — in the team of Waka Flocka Flame and Lex Luger, in the garbled goth-isms of Raider Klan, in the many waves of SoundCloud rap that have followed. Crunk is basically the reason that people mosh at rap shows now, even if a Rolling Loud moshpit has as much in common with the original Memphis gangsta walk as ’80s CBGB creepy-crawling did with a 2005 Warped Tour pit.
“Crunk Ain’t Dead” was a complete statement, and it easily could’ve been the only thing that the world ever heard from Duke Deuce. How far can you get with a crunk-revival platform once you get past that song and the remix, which brought in crunk elders Lil Jon, Juicy J, and Project Pat? But Duke Deuce was too good to go away after that. From the beginning, Duke transformed himself into a human meme, dancing spasmodically in every video and practically demanding the world to turn him into gifs. His videos are too outsized and ridiculous, and his music is too much fun. Duke Deuce hasn’t exactly evolved since “Crunk Ain’t Dead,” but he’s so charismatic that it’s not even an issue.
Objective music criticism doesn’t exist, but I am extremely non-objective when it comes to the continuing viability of crunk music. I love crunk music. Right around 2003 or 2004, when Lil Jon was screaming all over half the songs on the radio, I was about as excited about pop music as I’ve ever been in my entire life. I like hard, visceral, simplistic music, music for chanting and stomping, and crunk is about the purest form of that. So I’ve been rooting for Duke Deuce from the beginning. But even with that in mind, I’m surprised at just how good Duke Deuce’s new album Crunkstar really is.
Crunkstar came out on the same day that Drake released Honestly, Nevermind so it was always going to have a hard time getting any attention. But there’s so much frantic, overpowering life in Crunkstar. Duke Deuce’s album is too long, and it ends with some truly dubious experiments in emo-rap with serious nü metal overtones, but when it works, it works. Duke Deuce is a flexible rapper who understands how to rap on huge, gothed-out orchestral beats without sounding like a relic, and he’s got a gift for bellowing chanted hooks. He’s also got a glorious sense of the absurd. It’s ridiculous to turn something like LL Cool J’s pioneering 1987 simp-rap hit “I Need Love” into an elbow-throwing anthem, and that’s exactly why Duke Deuce does it. Ridiculousness is also why Duke Deuce rocks the Beethoven wig in the “Just Say That” video and why guest Doe Boy rhymes “blast hammers” with “Bad Santa.” This shit is fun, and it should be fun.
Crunkstar isn’t just silliness, though. It feels fully steeped in community. Musically, the album probably owes more to the Atlanta crunk of the Lil Scrappy/Crime Mob era than the Memphis stuff that came before it, but the album also feels fully rooted in Memphis. Plenty of its guests and producers come from the Memphis underground, and most of them aren’t famous yet. The great single “Just Say That” finds Duke Deuce teaming up with Glorilla, the young Memphis rapper whose viral smash “FNF (Let’s Go)” just landed on the Hot 100 a few weeks ago. Other guests, like Slimeroni and DJ Tootz, come from that same scene and don’t have anything resembling a national hit. (The DJ Tootz collab “Open Up” is just one long chanted mosh call, and it’s the kind of thing that could’ve come out of Memphis 25 years ago.) On “Flip Da Switch,” Memphis legend Juicy J co-produces, and in his guest-verse, Juicy rediscovers his old bloodlust: “Your baby mama can’t even bury your ass, gotta start a GoFundMe.”
A week after Crunkstar, Juicy J came out with his own new album. Juicy’s Space Age Pimpin’ is a full-length team-up with Pi’erre Bourne, the rapper and producer whose queasy tracks could be considered stylistic grandchildren of the stuff that Juicy used to make. But Space Age Pimpin’ doesn’t work. The Juicy and Pi’erre parts seem almost disconnected from one another, and Juicy spends way too much time rapping about cryto like that’s a cool thing. There is a lot wrong with a line like this one: “Buying NFTs in the metaverse, now I own ’em.” That shit was dated before it even came out. Juicy must’ve lost so much money in the past month.
Duke Deuce doesn’t have that problem. Crunkstar is an album built on older sounds, but it has a deranged, immediate energy that keeps it from sliding into retro revivalism. Maybe that’s because Duke Deuce is too gifted a rapper and too vital a presence, or maybe its just because crunk ain’t dead, crunk ain’t dead, crunk ain’t dead, ho. I want Duke Deuce to become an arena-level star, but even if that doesn’t happen, I’m still looking forward to hearing someone sample his voice on a #1 hit a quarter-century from now.
1. Dot Da Genius – “Talk About Me” (Feat. Denzel Curry, Kid Cudi, & JID)
I love all these guys, and I want them all to be best friends so that we can keep getting songs like this one. Kid Cudi can be hit-or-miss, but when you put him with some real rapping-ass rappers, then he becomes one, too. It’s wins all around.
2. Fr33 – “Come Outside” (Feat. Tmaac, Queeen, RatchetMan, & Gabbi)
This is a two-minute posse cut with, what, five rappers I’ve never heard of? And it’s great. It’s so cool when something like that happens.
3. Bandmanrill – “Jiggy In Jersey” (Feat. Sha Ek & DJ Swill B)
Drake might play around with Jersey club sounds on his new album, but Bandmanrill comes from Jersey club, and he raps over those beats in ways that find common ground between club and drill. He sounds like he’s operating in a completely different universe than anything that Drake could imagine, and it’s beautiful timing that he just came out with this track. It’s like: Go ahead, try biting this.
4. Gabe ‘Nandez – “RPG” (Feat. VIP Skylark)
This beat is so hypnotic, and yet it always sounds like it’s about to glitch out. So when it does glitch out, it barely even interrupts the flow.
5. Bktherula & Ski Mask The Slump God – “Through 2 U”
Kids are practically rapping over modem noises these days. It’s the best.