Those who celebrate the literary virtues of hip-hop as a contemporary analogue to traditional forms of African-American cultural expression probably get indigestion every time they hear Lil Jon on the radio. There can be no doubt: crunk is loud, willfully dumb, tirelessly retrograde in its lyrical preoccupations, crude and borderline unmusical in its simplicity. For those bobbing their heads to the conscience-expanding likes of Dead Prez or Common, the advent of crunk might seem like a primal apostasy on par with the rejection of Mosaic law by first-century Christians.
Certainly, Lil Jon is no Rakim. And a great deal of crunk is patently offensive and downright churlish, taking the anti-social preoccupations of gangsta rap and placing them in the infinitely bacchanal context of an eternal party—the worst behavior possible, without even the passing redemption of temporary lyrical grace. But it’s not necessary to dismiss crunk out of hand. The impulse might be sorely tempting, if not on ethical grounds than for the simple reason that in the year 2006 crunk is dangerously close to becoming the dominant sound of contemporary pop. While it lives and breathes as an increasingly powerful appendage of hip-hop, the sound itself is speedily metastisizing across the radio dial, infesting previously inviolate realms such as AOR balladry and rock. It’s only a matter of time before we’ve got some crunk country: as strange as it sounds, at this rate it’s inevitable.
There is a reason for this, above and beyond the temporal appeal of unlimited licentiousness offered by the likes of the Ying Yang Twins. For such a simple sound, crunk is surprisingly subtle. Taking the “cheap” aesthetic of early bounce and amplifying it into absurd proportions, crunk began well on the dangerous side of self-parody and only got worse as the months went on. In seeking increasing power through aggressive, mannered simplicity, the artificial nature of club-based hip-hop took further steps towards the kind of stately weirdness that has traditionally animated the best, most powerful techno. Lil Jon’s “Snap Yo Fingers” could be mistaken, without much effort, for some kind of tech-influenced jungle: the breaks are exactly one-half the speed of what you would find in a drum & bass mix, but the motorized bassline itself, and those punctuated synth horns . . . well, you could be forgiven in thinking you had accidentally tuned into an alternate-universe pirate radio station broadcasting from 1994 Brighton. Grime and crunk aren’t that very different after all, even if they took exactly the opposite circuitous routes to arrive at essentially the same place: grime grew organically out of British dance music to arrive at a homegrown hip-hop sound, whereas crunk evolved from domestic hip-hop to become strikingly similar to old-school techno and rave.
Of course, it’s not all quite so brilliant. The aforementioned “Snap Yo Fingers” leads off Crunk Hits Vol. 2, and the track is so strong in and of itself that the rest of the album almost comes as an afterthought. Just when you thought crunk couldn’t get anymore primal, Lil Jon is there to ratchet things up another notch. It says a lot for his ingenuity as a producer that he is able to absorb similar sounds without any loss of momentum. “Snap Your Fingers” owes as much to “snap” music and Bay Area hyphy, but the sound is still unmistakably crunk: pounding, relentless, irrefutably catchy. Lil Jon appears in some form on six out of the compilation’s 18 tracks—an impressive showing, even if nothing else here comes close to “Snap Yo Fingers”.
Chart-topper Chamillionaire represents with “Turn It Up”, a surprisingly low-key Scott Storch production that falls well short of “Ridin’” in terms of an immediately accessible (to say nothing of maddeningly catchy) hook. Lil Jon’s remix of Pitbull’s “Bojangles” is perhaps even simpler a template than “Snap Your Fingers”, even if it lacks that tracks’ inestimable charisma. BG and Mannie Fresh offer “Move Around”, which succeeds as much because of its differences from Lil Jon’s template as anything else—its a far more old school evocation of classic bounce, of the type you would have heard from Master P circa 1997 or Juvenile circa 1999.
Bounce/crunk pioneers the Three 6 Mafia represent with “Stay Fly”. This track is notable for its density and reliance on surprisingly old school filigrees such as soul samples and real (albeit sampled) strings in addition to its bouncy momentum. E-40 continues his continuing renaissance with “Tell Me When to Go”, featuring Keak Da Sneak (fresh off his collaboration with, ahem, DJ Shadow), a straight-up hyphy track that conjures the sound of space aliens transcribing Lil Jon through a busted speaker cone. The most annoying track on here is still Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina”, represented by the DJ Buddha remix—it’s a testament to the pop appeal of the genre that such a hook could be so intractably sharp and yet still incredibly insipid.
The disc rounds out with turns from the unspectacular likes of Dem Franchise Boyz and Lil Scrappy. At the very least, there’s not a boring moment on the entire disc, even if some of the tracks prove eminently skippable after a first listen. Most of it lacks the divine spark of Lil Jon’s guiding intelligence—it’s hard to be stupid in a smart way, all to easy to just be stupid. It should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that Lil Jon is a disciple of the likes of Bad Brains and Public Image Ltd.: his work weds the ferocity of American hardcore punk (if not the straight-edge mentality) to hip-hop, and the puckish irresponsibility of his clownish exterior belies a far more nuanced understanding of cultural history than is immediately apparent. If Crunk Hits is a testament to anything, it is the centrality of Lil Jon to the crunk sound: he’s got the reins, now lets see where he goes.
// Notes from the Road
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