Slicing Up the Soul
The first time I heard Juvenile was on “Ha”. This was probably one of the greatest hip-hop singles ever, a real blast of New Orleans gangsta soul music, full of rage and pain and heartbreak and defiance, all delivered by a dude with a childish name and a mouth full of metal (looking less like a grill than braces) and a 14-year-old voice telling the way it works in the N.O. projects and ending each line with a “Ha!” that sounded half like “You heard me?” and half like “You ain’t killed me yet!” He kept killing it, with “Back That Azz Up” and a bunch more songs and appearances on other people’s songs and then it all turned bad, with legal trouble and his acrimonious attempted leaving of Cash Money Records.
But he’s back now, apparently the big CM rift patched (or maybe just intimidated out of existence), hitting with the original edition of this disc late last year and now this new screwed and chopped verthat I would never go broke / Do what I gotta do to eat / I probably can’t play no sports, but I can work these streets”. Then, because this is what Michael Watts does for a living, he chops up those last two lines so we hear them again and again and again. (I wonder if this is some kind of sly dig at Master P, the No Limit coach who has played credible semi-pro basketball and didn’t need to roll like a g.)
And there are fascinating tracks like “Bounce Back,” where Juve and Baby “a.k.a. the Birdman” do everything but calling this a comeback. Sure, Juve says “I hustle with a strategy that’s never been taught,” but there’s a tacit admission that he’s no longer the same as when Tha “G” Code was the hottest thing around: “I’m serious and focused too / You know I’m overdue.” And what was already a gentle sort of track in its original Mannie Fresh production is now smoothed out even further by Watts, so it’s now pretty much just a doo-wop beat, sad and elegaical even when dudes are talking about “Spray the whole clip / take nothin’ from no bitch / I got the money in the case / .45 on my waist / Pit bulls in my yard / So stay away from my gate.”
But this isn’t some kind of emo feel-bad-for-me-I’m-so-understood deal. Most of the songs just deal with what it’s like to make a living in an illegal manner: killing people, avoiding cops, treating women like prostitutes, “trying to get the same respect as my dad got.” The theme of living up to his father’s criminal legacy is strong here; he rhymes “Lil Daddy” with “brand new Caddy” and says “Poor niggas be eatin’ pork, rich niggas be eatin’ steak / I’m a get me a porterhouse, nigga, you just wait”, and I’m sure there’s a whole thesis for someone here: “The Poetry of Juvenile: From a Boy to (His Father’s) Man.”
But I don’t have the time for that, so I’m just going to sit back and blare ignant stuff like “It Ain’t Mine’s,” about some skanky bitch who’s trying to trap Juve on some Ricki Lake “who’s my baby’s daddy” trip. The attitude is poisonously bad, the misogyny is so thick you could spread it on a cake, but it’s still funky and soulful, Mannie Fresh fake-reggae synths now sounding like a ghetto symphony. Even more complex and stirring is the Griz production on “Numb Numb,” a tick-tock drug brag which is now stretched out to almost seven minutes through Watts’ invention. While Juve’s talking about how his stuff will mess you up and how big his house is, cowbells and ominous pianos and Eastern sounds clip-clop in the background. It’s kind of a Mexican narcocorrido two-step, except that it is about a million times more dramatic all along-when Watts pulls his “rewind” gimmick at the 4:10 mark, it’s really scary and disruptive and awesome.
The centerpiece here, I would say, is “In My Life,” another Mannie Fresh joint. The ostensible subject of it all is how Juve and Mannie want to live big-baller lives and just don’t care about anything anyone says, but the real subject is how Mannie’s tones are turned to drones by Watts’ meddling. I wouldn’t say that this is Watts’ finest hour or anything, because it’s mostly just the same thing he always does, but there’s a restraint and minimalism here that just makes the whole thing kind of sublime. When he starts really chopping here, the hypnotic repetition makes Juve sound like an epic storyteller. Which he probably isn’t, really; he’s got things to say, and an interesting way of saying it, but he usually just pulls back and focuses on sounding hard and mean. But when the producers (also better mention Slice T.‘s work on “F***in With Me” and the really funky “Slow Motion” track by Dani Kartel) and Watts and Juve all come together well, you won’t even care about whether or not you are supposed to like what you’re hearing, you’ll just like it in spite of your best intentions.
There’s a lot of soul here, and it’s made even weirder and freakier by all the screwing and chopping and messed-up-ed-ness. The original is probably better, on some level, more direct and real, but this one is better too. Hell, I don’t care, I’ll listen to them both.