You’d be forgiven if you wrote off Three 6 Mafia from the time you first took notice. Their most prestigious achievement—winning an Academy Award in 2006—comes by way of explaining how “it’s hard out here for a pimp” in the movie Hustle & Flow. With the increased exposure from their award win and their out-of-place rap performance at the award show, the group then landed an MTV reality show, Adventures in Hollyhood. That show followed them as they moved to Hollywood, where they got into all sorts of antics, including dating a girl from the show Laguna Beach and peeing on Jennifer Love Hewitt’s lawn. In 2008, they released Last 2 Walk, featuring the terrible, trend-hopping Auto-tune abortion “Lolli Lolli”. If any of these moments informed your first impression of Three 6 Mafia, you couldn’t be blamed for not giving a crap about anything they ever did again.
So then when you listen to Three 6 member Juicy J’s solo album, Hustle Till I Die, you may get confused by what you’re hearing. You’ll keep spinning it just to make sure you’re hearing right. Eventually, if it hasn’t already, it’ll dawn on you that the “Three 6” part of their name is another way of writing “666”. This is music for Satan to bump in the lowest recesses of hell. And it’s really great.
Imagine about 15 different variations on the main theme from The Exorcist. Then set that to Southern rap drum programming. That is the meat of Juicy J’s album. This is dark, heavy, gothic music full of dissonance, minor chords and keys, ominous strings, and a really aggressive approach that rarely lets up.
Its relentlessness might’ve made this into a repetitive listen, but Juicy J is a surprisingly dynamic producer. He’s constantly performing little musical tricks that keeps you engaged, even if all these tricks do is add to the menace of the tracks. Going into the second verse of “My Niggaz”, the beat slows down from an energetic bounce to a sledgehammer-like thump, and Juicy J switches his rhyme cadence to take advantage of the extra space. “Purple Kush” consists of little more than tinny drums, heavy bass, and chants of “Purple kush!” That is, until the third verse, when this grim organ starts fading in—creeping in, really—transforming a relatively fun weed joint into something wholly unsettling.
This album is most definitely about the music and not the lyrics. Juicy J is a competent rapper with lots of charisma but not much else. Though most rappers tend to mine the same few topics over and over again—for Juicy J, those are getting high and beating dudes up, but mostly getting high—Juicy J fails to explore his topics in an interesting or at least technically proficient way. It’s mostly shallow tough-talk in a grade-school flow.
Juicy’s only moment of transcendence occurs on “Let’s Get High”, when a night of heavy drinking and drug use gets him kicked out of a club and thrust into a state of depressing resignation. It’s here that the darkness of his mind peeks out, meeting up with darkness of the music. You get a glimpse of the sadness that his way of life entails. And you feel for him for a second. If only these moments were more frequent. As it is, Juicy J’s album makes for some great fight music and not much more.