“Call me an unreconstructed Pan-African cultural nationalist, African-fer-the-Africans-at-home-and-abroad-type rock and roll nigga and I won’t be mad at ya,” writes Greg Tate in a recently published elegy for rap music. “[But] I remember the Afro-centric dream of hip-hop’s becoming an agent of social change rather than elevating a few ex-drug dealers’ bank accounts.” It’s obvious why that dream failed; aside from its destructive (yet inevitable) subsumption into the quicksand of corporate capital, hip-hop never really became an agent of social change because the other route was so much easier. Ending racism and such is hard. Rapping about all the people who lived above the buildings that I was hustling in front of that called the po-lice on me when I was just trying to make some money to feed my daughter — well, that’s easier, not to mention more profitable.
But hey, whoa — I’m not trying to hate on Biggie here. “Juicy” is a brilliant work of art, one of the most joyful songs ever recorded, which goes to show how a hip-hop record can be great even if it doesn’t drop any Gil Scott-Heron science. An unrepentant corporate synergist, Lil Jon probably isn’t exactly Gil’s brand of cloves. The title of Jon’s latest album simultaneously pumps the lifestyle he’s trying to sell — y’know, crunk — as well as an actual drink called Crunk!!! (All three exclamation points very necessary, apparently.) Unfortunately, I’ve yet to taste-test Crunk!!!, so I can’t recommend it, but looking at its ingredient list it appears fans of high fructose corn syrup and citric acid might just have a new favorite thirst quencher!!!
Crunk!!!, by the way, is billed as an energy drink, which may explain why the first half of Crunk Juice (the album) consists of pure, pile-driven male aggression, powered by power chords and Lil Jon’s incredibly irritating gangsta shriek. His voice sounds the way his metal-encrusted teeth look: rough, unnatural, probably painful. I still can’t fathom why this guy is so popular. Maybe it’s the music — “Yeah” recently won a People’s Choice Award for something or other (can’t fathom that, either; is it just me or is that one of the most ordinary songs to go to number one in recent memory?). More than likely, though, it’s Dave Chappelle’s fault. If it weren’t for Chappelle, would white people even realize Lil Jon had a shtick to milk? Would Lil Jon have realized it?
Questions for another time. Milking shtick, however, is something Jon does extremely well, which would be kind of endearing if the shtick weren’t so thin in the first place. Screaming “yeah,” “okay” and “what” do not a memorable performer make; not even Crunk Juice‘s “Aww Skeet Skeet” can make up for it. And yet — despite his shallowness, his questionable ability as a producer, and his fingernails-on-an-eardrum voice, I still enjoy at least six of this album’s fourteen tracks, thanks mostly to the darned catchy hooks. Hooks matter, especially when the rapping is so boring and the beats so bland. And good hooks redeem “One Night Stand,” “Da Blow,” and the R. Kelly-Ludacris collab “In da Club.” Guest producers fare better with the music part: Rick Rubin gives “Stop Fuckin’ Wit Me” a Slayer-sampling, riff-metal spine, and the Neptunes bring another lumpy, bongo-based beat to “Stick That Thang Out (Skeezer)” (what are the Neptunes batting right now, anyway, .500? .600?).
Like I said, on the best of these songs you won’t even notice the boring rapping. That’s a good thing — listen close and you’ll hear some vile, witless anti-woman venom, which is particularly infuriating when delivered in a context of pure, pile-driven male aggression, and really particularly infuriating when chirped by sweet-voiced female singer Oobie (who sings about how “bitches” like it when “niggas” “mistreat” them, serves ’em right because “a bitch gon’ always scheme”). This shit’s been a hip-hop staple for way too long, of course, and it’s hardly indicative of rap’s one-time potential to engender social change. But it sure does sell, which is why, to steal my man Tate’s kicker, “the Negro hip-hop artist,” faced with rap’s seemingly limitless potential as a folk art, “chose to take his emancipated motor-mouth and stuck it up a stripper’s ass because it turned out there was gold in them thar hills.”