Oh, So Close to Greatness
Crunk is all the rage right now, but it’s kind of hard to define it. It’s more an aesthetic than a style, but it’s still kind of a style, a cross of Miami booty bass with electro-clash, maybe, I guess. The big hits leaking out of the ATL lately have had that swaggery crunch: “Get Low”, by Lil Jon finally hit the national pop charts about a year after it was released, and you can hear similar examples all over.
But crunk is really an attitude more than anything else, an attitude that is easily understood by listening to Ying Yang Twins’ contribution to “Get Low”: loud rowdy shouted vocals celebrating thuggish partying, a willingness to dance (“To the window! / To the wall!”) and a willingness to drink and a willingness to just let it all hang out. It’s not quite gangsta, and it’s not quite disco, and it’s not quite polite or conscious or even smooth—crunk is all about its rough edges, its lack of class leading to exciting new stylistic eff-you breakthrough. In fact, in the world of hip-hop, crunk is Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack: creating great art out of hatred for snobs and love of a good time.
We are welcomed to this album by its producer, the real genius here, Beat-In-Azz; he used to be called DJ Smurf, so you can see that behind every crunk thug is a silly party man for real. Beat-In-Azz introduces us to both of the Ying Yang Twins: D Roc, “slick out the mouth, know what I’m sayin’?”, and Kaine, “the little short grouchy motherfucker”. The fact that this intro is done to a cheapy-synth version of the “Seminole” chant heard at Atlanta Braves games (and FSU games, where it started) is pretty typical: it’s annoying as shit, but undeniable—hear how Diddy bit it for “Shake Your Tailfeather”?
Well, that’s crunk in a nutshell: annoying but undeniably funky. “Hanh!” is the first real song, and (as my colleague Frank Kogan has lamented) should have been the first single. Well, you’ll hear it when it breaks, a perfectly textured single that doesn’t really mean anything about anything, but sticks in your mind nonetheless: “If we ain’t crunk they think we’re playin’ / All around the world is what they’re sayin’”, followed by layers of Twins yelling “Hanh! Hanh!” in layers and layers over each other, in an apparent attempt to turn people insane. But the rising keyboard melody can’t be stopped, and neither can their flow, even if it means approximately zero on a stick. Lyrics like “Ying Yang in this thang / And it’s evident / You don’t really like us? / You’re irrelevant” are as perfect as they are empty, and most of the rest of the lines end up just “rhyming” with “Hanh!” anyway, or, alternatively, “nigga”.
Every song here follows the same template, which is kind of unsurprising and admirable. “Grey Goose” is a lovely hymn to rotgut alcohol: “This here for my alcoholics / What’s they drink? Grey Goose they call it / A big clear glass with a bird on the bottle / A nigga wanna more drunker so he swallow”. This is not fun happy drinking, but angry freaky drinking: everyone’s raising their middle fingers, driving while they’re fucked up, smelling skunk, fighting, sweating—by the time their friend is so drunk he’s dry-humping the floor, you wonder if maybe it’s actually an anti-drinking song. Except that it’s not. There is NO DAMNED SUBTEXT HERE at all, it’s all right there on the surface. And that’s what makes it so great.
Because it is great, on some or a lot of levels. Beat-In-Azz is so futuristic a producer that it’s hard to not get sucked into songs like “Grey Goose” or the loud shouty misogynist paradise “What the Fuck!”, where those notoriously calm individuals Killer Mike and Bonecrusher show up to scream some more about how the club needs to be more live, like, now, or there’s gonna be trouble. “Georgia Dome (Get Low Sequel)” is pretty upfront about its status as a Part Two of a big fat hit, so it’s okay that it is basically the same thing as the last one, just P.Funked- and Gilletted-up more. Now we’re expected to go “From the ceiling! To the floor!”, and we get a “suckit suckit suckit” from the guys and a “lickit lickit lickit” from the ladies and it all sounds suspiciously like “wiki wiki wiki” and it’s all so excellent.
And then, of course, the two-part masterpiece that is “Naggin’”. The first version gives the guys’ version about the deleterious effects of nagging on a brother, using that whole fake-Egyptian “there’s a place in France where the naked ladies dance” melody and a huge round bass/timpani tone to underscore the Twins’ feeling that they shoulda left that bitch alone (sic), but instead they have to deal with a lot of talk. Even though it’s stereotypical and anti-woman and all that, and it is, it’s still an ace piece of popcraft, and approaches rap greatness around the 3:09 mark when Kaine takes the mic back from his “brother” to sing-song the following brilliant self-aware lines: “It’s a damn shame to end it like this / Ain’t got love for ya, bitch / Shoo fly don’t boooooother me / Will I get back with her? Prooooobably / Then I thought about it / I won’t!” That’s skillz, yo and the conceptual brilliance of following this with “Naggin’ Part II (The Answer)”, with Ms. Flawless and Tha Rhythm riding the same rhythm to curse out brothers who run around and chase ass in the streets and telling them “When you get here I’ll be gone”.
But it’s just all too much: too much “bitch” and “ho” stuff, too much growly chomping, too much boom and bleep and bash with no variation. They try to slow things down on the title track, but the results sound just like a Killer Mike song but more boring. They try to create a new club anthem in “Salt Shaker”, and its “Shake it like a salt shaker” beats the pants off “Shake it like a Polaroid picture” every day of the week but it’s hard to get it up for boogieing when they’re screaming instructions at women like creepy rapists. And I’m sure that “Calling All Zones” makes a lot more sense in the ATL than it does to anyone else, so maybe it’s interesting to them down there, but it means nothing to me.
Ah, this one coulda been great, but it just hits the same formula too damned hard, over and over again. There is joy in repetition, but there’s more joy in mixing things up every once in a while.