[29 October 2006]
Detailing what makes the Bronx sibling trio the Juggaknots’ 1996 debut Clear Blue Skies such an incredible record is frustrating. Bobbito Garcia’s Fondle ‘Em label put out two phenomenal but obscure debuts that year: the Juggaknots’ Clear Blue Skies and Siah and Yeshuah da poED’s The Visualz EP. The Visualz is best known for “A Day Like Any Other”, an adventure rap which clocks in at just over 11 minutes. Kool Keith and MF Doom also released material on Fondle ‘Em, both under multiple personas.
As a genre, underground rap has always been conceptual; lacking a live band, lyrics in German, story jams with Run Lola Run-inspired interlocking plotlines, or stark assessments of American politics, Clear Blue Skies might sound boring on paper to greener fans. After all, verses like Breeze Brewin’s extended rhyme-creation-as-childbirth metaphor on “Troubleman” are a dime a dozen, and there’s nothing groundbreaking about a title track that tackles interracial dating. So Skies will simply have to settle for being, in my humble opinion, one of the five or so best lyrical performances to come out of New York.
Breeze Brewin handled most of the rhymes on Clear Blue Skies. His older brother, Buddy Slim, rhymed sparingly but produced the bulk of the beats, and his younger sister, Queen Herawin, was hard at work in high school during the album’s creation. Breeze’s style is unique and compelling, delivered with a slightly nasal, laid-back, almost trance-like voice that sounds best behind the beat on a slow, lo-fi track. He is top-notch lyrically, good with vivid descriptions (“brass knuckles givin noogies”) and wit (“surivial of the fittest, call me fuckin Tony Atlas”), evident on the album’s two solo battle tracks, “Jivetalk” and “Epiphany”. On “Jivetalk,” Breeze leaves his thoughts hanging, turning compliments into disses: “there’s times I can’t front, your style is milk / curdling, close to cottage cheese” and calling another emcee fly, but like Jeff Goldblum. And it is Breeze’s phrasing which makes him so incredible. He strings together sentence fragments, not always completing one thought before beginning another, and sometimes using entire sentences as adjectives. His lines hit the sweet spot between complex and abstract, requiring a few listens to entirely digest, but not grad-school-style research. This technique makes his two story tracks, “Loosifa” and “I’m Gonna Kill You”, the two best joints on the album, narrative primordial oozes in which the listener can lose the plot, only to find it again two bars later.
Use Your Confusion is the first full Juggaknots album in a decade, but the crew was far from silent in the interim. Breeze was a fixture in the burgeoning New York indie rap scene and Herawin grew into a skilled clone of her brother. The two teamed up with the legendary Company Flow for a few tracks as the Indelible MCs. Breeze might be best known as Tariq, the main character in Prince Paul’s 1999 album-as-movie Prince Among Thieves, in which Herawin also played a role. While working at the legendary Manhattan record spot Fat Beats and later as an English teacher, Breeze jumped on a few tracks a year. The crew even founded their own label. On Matic Records, they gave Clear Blue Skies its first CD release seven years later and released two brand new singles. And the Juggaknots never lost a step, making their return all the more highly anticipated.
Follow-ups to legendary debuts (especially those given a decade to marinate) are wide open for sophomore jinxes, but Use Your Confusion is actually pretty good. While Buddy Slim still falls back most of the time, Breeze Brewin and Queen Herawin split the rhyme duties about halfway. Breeze still amazes with every lyric, laying out the historical perspective on “Namesake” (and calling former Bobbito co-DJ Stretch Armstrong a “cracked-out Doug Christie”), but his sister holds her own with no trouble. The album opens with “Hey”, where the two siblings just talk shit back and forth, trading fours; the juxtaposition sort of legitimizes Herawin, if there were any doubts. She narrates growing up female on her solo track, “Daddy’s Little Girl”, which seems to drift freely in and out of autobiography. Her brother taught her well.
The sophomore album does feel like a sophomore album, as purposeful as their debut was haphazard. In a notable move to avoid just putting their best verses on wax, almost every track on Confusion has a topic. Gone are the undirected battle flows, replaced with raps about smiling (“Smile”), lying (“Liar, Liar”) and chains (“Movin’ the Chains”). But this isn’t just a ploy for concept-hungry backpackers. Ten years didn’t just make the Juggaknots more focused musically. Confusion is rap for grown-ups, introspective with concepts fleshed out and explored beyond what would be necessary just to impress an audience with mental gymnastics. “Strip Club” is not for strip club patrons, it’s actually about going to the strip club. It’s cool, but sometimes awkward. And of course, “30 Something”, about reflections on getting older, is the best track on the album. Over a lush, stuttering beat, Breeze insists “if I’m washed up / I’m so fresh and so clean clean”. A guest verse from Sadat X (who has to be damn near 40 by now) tops it off.
The only real problem with Use Your Confusion is its length. Though not the bloated 70-minute major label disaster which is the average over-long rap album, the Juggaknots’ dense rhymes are a lot to digest. Their 2001 three-song WKRP in NYC EP was a rap gobstopper, enough music for a week and a half; 15 tracks is overwhelming. But the lyrics are worth dissecting and the Juggaknots sound as good as ever.