Emerging out of the "Dirty South" and sweeping the nation's clubs and airwaves is a new style of hard-core rap that calls itself "crunk". It is loud, chaotic, repetitive, heavy, and volatile with all the grace of the Hindenburg's final landing; in short, its success has left hip-hop aesthetes perplexed and dismayed. The beats are vacuous and overtly fake, the song structures are redundant and predictable, and the lyrics are just plain bad. Is crunk worth listening to at all? Or, is there another way to conceive of crunk, not as an inability to achieve the goals set by the established aesthetics of rap, but as a rejection of these aesthetics. Moreover, it seems that the somewhat puzzling popularity of crunk is a reflection of its ability to appeal to a marginalized audience and to posit identities that are usually overlooked by the hip-hop mainstream. That said, just because something is loud and comes from the south does not make it crunk. Crunk and Disorderly, a compilation of unreleased tracks from TVT Records tends to gloss over this distinction. Yet, peppered throughout a disorderly mix of banal raps are a few tracks that reflect the true nature of crunk: catchy, feisty, and exuberant.
Much like punk is to rock, crunk reflects the desire to embrace of popular involvement in rap as well as a deconstruction of the high art standards that are beginning to be imposed on rappers as they increasingly become "rap-artists". Just as punk grew out of the impoverished working-class neighborhoods of Britain, crunk has emerged from working-class regions of the South, an area of the country largely ignored by the rap world's east-coast/west-coast polarity, that is, until now. Both, moreover, share the same quality of being considered unlistenable, or at the very least, unskilled reproductions of simple and staid music forms. Yet, as fans of punk well know, the genius of the music is not in the musicianship or originality of the forms per se, but rather the ability of the music to incite a visceral emotional response, a sense of power, and of pride. The rejection of the aesthetic is also a rejection of the distance established between the listener as the observer and an embrace of the doer. Hence, crunk is both an adjective and a verb. To "get crunk" is to have fun, but also to "represent" an identity that one can embrace as authentic.
This is not to say that what is "bad" in rap becomes "good" in crunk, but rather that crunk has its own standards which are key to its role as party music and music that creates space to establish marginal identities. The best example of this is the album's opening track, "What You Gonna Do", by Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz and Lil Scrappy. The cheaply produced beat packs quite a punch, with at least enough low end to rattle your windows, and probably those of your neighbors as well. The rap and rhyme schemes have very little structural or melodic variation that makes the song simple and easy to follow. Additionally, the vocals are multi-tracked several times over to suggest a collectivity that one can easily join and belong to. The DIY sound and the us/them opposition of the lyrics suggest an inclusivity that rejects any and all marginalization. What is great about the track is not so much the quality as the quantity, that is, the size of the beat, the limitless energy of the lyric, the incessant chant of the cathartic chorus, in short, a guaranteed crowd pleaser. Moreover, the song establishes the classic crunk song format with the chorus up front and featuring a characteristic call and response pattern, followed by a contrasting verse, and then a return to the chorus. The cycle repeats several times, establishing a format that is repetitive but intensely satisfying.
While the format is almost universal to crunk, it is not necessarily restrictive. "Nan Notha" by Three 6 Mafia features an ingenious variation in the verse as well as an original use of southern colloquialisms. The variety in the lyrical rhyme schemes and rhythmic flow creates a tension that builds to a cathartic release when the call and response hits on the chorus. "That's Nasty" by Pitbull and featuring Lil Jon and Scrappy is possibly the best song on the album and an excellent example of the unique artfulness of crunk. The beat adds beautiful melody and energy to the chorus while establishing balance by pulling back on the verse. Pitbull's rap on the verses demonstrates his ability to keep lyrics interesting by varying the pace, eschewing the typically dirge-like pace of crunk, but maintaining the simplicity. And, of course, Lil Jon's growling vocal cameos take the track's intensity over the limit.
Many of the other songs on the album, however, fail to achieve crunk's exacting standards, songs that come off as loud and dirty but simply sound disorderly, not crunk. "D-Boy Stance" by Konkrete and featuring southern rap celebrity Big Boi falls into the disorderly category. The beat is made overly complicated by a cluttered arrangement and the introduction of scratching. Worst of all, it strays from the crunk format by eschewing the call and response pattern that is central to the experience of getting crunk. The raps are indeed layered and monotonous, but they lack all the exuberance of the Lil Jon menacing shout. Other songs also come off as disorderly by simply being too soft, with weak beats and feigned aggression as on "Throw Up Yo' Hood" by Lil Flip. Other problems are the Christmas-themed novelty tracks which are indeed crunk, but too ridiculous to warrant multiple listens. Despite these weak tracks, Crunk and Disorderly is an entertaining introduction to the crunk anti-aesthetic and a decent party album, although a disappointment to the real crunk enthusiast.