Doin' Surgery on Bodies
Juvenile is all over his new album, Tha G-Code. I mean, the record is bumpy-grindy and cartoony-horror-showy, and of course, it’s lively as you’d expect from this most enthusiastic Hot Boy. It’s witty and wily too, full of big-booming tales of ballin’ and survivin’ in the Magnolia projects and a few observations concerning generational divides and continuities, recognizing advice from fathers—in “Tha Man,” “My daddy always told me, ‘Boy, don’t be a follower / You got a lot of pride, but some you need to swallow up / You keep that attitude, you won’t see tomorrow, bruh’”—and rejecting all adults who even think about wearing uniforms. Juve obviously appreciates his unbelievable success—his pockets just be flooded with money—but he’s no snob about it. Rather, he’s equal parts generous and deranged, and he wants to share his astonishing optimism and wild-ass imagination. There are few artists who can make you feel so delighted by telling such fierce and scary stories.
On this, his fourth solo record—after Being Myself (1995, on Warlock Records), Solja Rags (1997, on Cash Money), and the explosive 400 Degreez (1998, also on Cash Money)—Juve hasn’t altered or even polished his approach so much as he’s intensified it. He knows where he’s from—“Mind your business is a code, too, I never told / Ever since a nigga was a million years old”—and breaks it down with seductive style and potency.
Mostly, Tha G-Code is bursting with what he and his Cash Money Label mates—Lil Wayne, BG, Turk, and producer Mannie Fresh—do best: fast funky Magnolia bounce and richly detailed tales about dealing and balling in the projects: “We drink up all the round, we drink up all the white / We go to all the spots, we be up all the night” from “Fuck that Nigga”; and “I’ma bring drama, chaos, nothin’ less / When I’m ridin’ ‘round your set, it’s a nigga best eject / Nigga, like a rain storm, your whole block get wet / All it take is one to tha head, bahdi-by-by, you rest,” from “Guerilla.” And yet, for all the violence in his lyrics, Juve acknowledges he be story-telling: in “Never Had Shit,” he marvels at his own good fortune: “Put Jackie Chan outta business, tha way that I live stunt.”
But what is this stunt about? Who loves him? And why? Juve’s images are admittedly berserk and his language can be—or rather, must be, by the codes of keeping it real—vulgar. So how does he make so many folks, from so many places, so glad to be hearing him? Consider that the pre-Sisquo’s “Thong,” most booty-shaking-est video for the G-Code single, “Back That Thang Up” (originally “Back that Ass Up”) would make continued and longterm rotation on MTV’s after-school call-in show, Total Request Live, to the point that the video had to be retired. The producers of TRL, being most infamously the premiere venue for the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Synch and Britney Spears, surely could not have anticipated that Juvenile’s single would be so popular with the majority middle class elementary and junior high school students who dominate its much cherished “demographic.” Who’s selling what to whom?
Crossover is one word for the Juve phenomenon, but there’s plenty of artists who have that going on, bigtime (Juve isn’t so corny as Will Smith, so intimidating as RZA, or so alarming as DMX, but he’s as charismatic as any of them). Another word for it might be commercial: backed by Mannie Fresh’s imaginative electro-soul mixes, Juve’s got shrewd, frank, vibrant lyrics to burn, and delivers them with near-irresistible confidence and verve. Jubilantly self-aggrandizing (like any rapper worth his salt, he asserts that he’s “got the rap game on lock”), even his choruses resonate with eerie but also catchy rhymes: in “U Understand,” he announces, “Tonight is the night that we ride / 30 camouflage Hummers with niggaz inside / with choppers, doin surgery on bodies like they doctors.”
Indisputably talented and clever, Juvenile—and his team—have shown themselves adept at marketing his strengths—their outrageous lyrics, bling bling beat, and wifebeaters-and-platinum-teeth style—no matter how country they may seem to outsiders. With Tha G-Code, Juvenile reprises and refines ideas he’s used well enough previously, including the requisite “vignettes,” most featuring Fresh’s inimitable fast-patter and praise for the star player (“Juvenile got to suck on a lemon, ‘cause he’s just awesome!”). What I want to figure out—because I’m often asked—is how a white girl academic finds Juvenile’s bounce to be so magnetic. Or more precisely, what am I seeing and hearing in well-crafted stories about drivebys and bitches and Oscar Meyers and Rolexes?
Part of the appeal, for me, is that such familiar themes and subjects are here rearranged into complicated mosaics that reflect not only the artists’ experiences, but also the current cultures consuming them. Just now, the “family business” acts—Cash Money and Ruff Ryders are the most prominent—are, as the Hot Boys put it, “on fire.” For all their baller posturing (and claims to write rhymes on the spot in the studio), the act is sophisticated and cultivated, resulting from hard work but also offering an uneasy analysis of the status quo. Party music it may be, but the stories it tells are also relevant and pointed. That Juvenile delivers these stories with skill and nerve, so that his swagger is combined with a sense of community. As he says in “A Million and One Things,” “Man, you could be out here trying’ ta do somethin’, man / I mean every time we come through, man, I do somethin’ for my people, man / I give tha little kids a dollar or so, ya know what I’m sayin’ / I try ta do things for tha football team / Try ta take care of my people / Try ta show them how ta help theyself / ‘Cause they got a lot of problems.” And he means to make them known.
// Notes from the Road
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