Today's In Defense Of was contributed by Square Zeros' Derek Hawkins.
Music history is full of cases in which artists, often through no fault of their own, get reduced to one song at the expense of their more interesting work. I’m not talking about one-hit-wonders, but genuinely talented, enduring musicians with broad discographies whose names become synonymous with little more than their most popular cut.
Juvenile is one of them — and his case is too upsetting to leave alone. I can think of few musicians from my youth who are as defined by a single song as Terius Gray is by his epic party anthem, “Back That Azz Up” (or, if you’re Tipper Gore, “Back That Thang Up”). Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great song in its own right (more on that later), but its over-the-top lewdness paved the way for people to unfairly caricaturize Juvenile, obscuring his more thoughtful music as a result.
Juvenile has released nearly a dozen albums over the past 20 years, with all the ups and downs you’d expect in a catalogue that large. His early cuts are well worth a listen, especially Being Myself, which features an underdeveloped but highly original blend of gangsta and bounce. Reality Check, from 2006, is also solid — if the year and title don’t give enough away, it’s got a dose of well-placed post-Katrina vitriol, along with some of Juvy’s best depictions of New Orleans project life.
But it’s 1998’s 400 Degreez that’s the crown jewel of his discography. And ironically it’s that record that brought his megahit to the world.
Southern hip hop hardly gets grittier or more street-level than 400 Degreez. Set almost entirely in New Orleans’ Magnolia Projects — famous for the litany of MCs they produced, as well as the number of dead bodies they produced — the album is loaded with images of the blight and violence that are facts of life in one of the country’s most dangerous housing districts. Few if any of Juvenile’s descriptions are indulgent or hyperbolic, and that’s what sets him apart. Nearly everything plays out in vignettes, told in Juvy’s instantly recognizable southern slang (he even drops a few Creole colloquialisms). One minute you’re blowing your income tax check on coke. Then you’re dodging a spray of bullets at the end of a second line. Then you’re fucking some chick in the back of a Benz. Next thing you know, Juvy’s got his potato-tipped Glock pressed up against your temple because he thinks you’re a snitch.
At no point does 400 Degreez engage in cheap autobiography. Juvenile uses “you” a lot more than “I,” as if to let his audience know he’s on their level, no matter how far he’s made it. “Hard Knock Life,” which came out days before 400 Degreez, is self-aggrandizing and thin on detail by comparison. And when it comes to threats and braggadocio, Juvenile is more understated than his contemporaries, making him all the more believable. DMX, who released Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood in late 1998, is plenty intimidating when he bellows, “Red dot on your head cause you’s in mid-range / red dot on your chest opens up your ribcage.” But there’s a far more convincing menace behind Juvy’s words: “You keep showing your teeth cause you think it’s a joke / you must think these bullets ain’t real and you ain’t gon’ get smoked.”
No track on 400 Degreez represents the spirit of the album as a whole better than “Ha,” the opener. If Juvenile has to be defined by one song, that should be it. Lyrically, “Ha” is a second-person account of the daily struggles and small triumphs that make up life in the place where Juvy grew up. Over a dark bounce beat, he lays down fast, stuttering lines — each ending with “ha” — that take you to task for living the same way he does and making the same mistakes. The result is a stinging psycho-analysis of hood life. Like an older brother scolding you for doing something stupid, he can be pretty blunt, but he lets you know he’s been there, too: “That’s you with that bad ass Benz, ha / That’s you that can’t keep your old lady cause you keep fucking her friends, ha / You gotta go to court, ha / You got served a subpoena for child support, ha.”
The whole song plays out like that, creeping along over Mannie Fresh’s twitchy backing track, with Juvy's sharp-tongued commentary prodding you like the voice in your head. He knows you’ve got a triple beam scale, he knows you wear a bulletproof vest, he knows you count your money at the end of the night, and he knows that you were too chickenshit to step outside in the ‘Nolia on New Years Eve because you were afraid of getting capped. And he’s calling you out on it — but not without a modicum of empathy: “You a paper chaser, you got your block on fire /remaining a G until the moment you expire / you know what it is to make nothing out of something / you handle your biz and don’t be crying and suffering.”
Juvenile’s handlers knew they’d struck gold with this track (it actually turned out to be platinum), so they floated it as the record’s first single to enormous fanfare. To date, I think it’s one of the best Dirty South songs of all time.
The same themes permeate 400 Degreez. “Ghetto Children” rides a mid-tempo funk vamp — one of the record’s best samples — and features Juvenile at his most sympathetic: “I don’t like dreamin about makin no cheese / wanna see my motherfuckin bank account OD’d / until then I’ma be thuggin behind a project building / smoking that fire be with the ghetto children / plottin on a way that we can make a million.” Juvy lapses into a super-catchy melodic rapping on the second verse, showing he’s not all rasp and gravel. It calls up some of George Clinton’s more socially conscious stuff for me.
“Follow Me Now” also adds to the album’s dynamism. It’s built upon a clever Tito Puente sample, with more half-singing, half-rapping, and one of the most stick-in-your-head choruses Juvy has to offer: “Follow me now if you want it on / Salute at ease, then you carry on / nigga drop and gimme 50 if you do it wrong / I’m into weapons, I control the dome.”
“U.P.T” is the best of the collaborative tracks, featuring some deadly call-and-response from Baby, B.G., Turk, and an adolescent Lil Wayne. It’s a dark, blazed-out head-nodder that borders on horrorcore: “Police can investigate but they ain’t gonna find shit / but 100 bullet shells without a fucking fingerprint.”
Some cuts are more lighthearted, and Juvenile provides a few well-timed injections of materialism. “Flossin Season” celebrates the objects of prestige, from new TVs to motorcycles to diamonds, but it comes with a measure of self-consciousness that makes it more complex than you’d think: “Niggas takin trips to the banks / hittin malls, spendin 20 Gs like stars / Rolex, Playstations in the Hummer / Just to show these stupid hoes that we worth somethin.”
And then there's “Back That Azz Up.”
It comes toward the end of the album, at track 13, and in context it serves as a reprieve from some of the heavier songs that surround it. It feels like “Flossin Season” with regard to its hedonism, but instead of cars and electronics, it’s an ode to filthy, uninhibited fucking. The beat that supports it couldn’t be better tailored to the subject matter — you simply will not find an instrumental track that commands the grinds and gyrations that Mannie Fresh’s does, with all its twitches and clicks and thumping basslines. Juvy's throaty attack and relentless flow could give Margaret Thatcher a boner. It makes “Baby Got Back” sound like a nursery rhyme. If you can’t get down to this song, fuck off.
Given the universality of “Back That Azz Up,” it’s understandable why many people came to define Juvenile by it. But its success was so overwhelming that I’m afraid it has left people with the impression that he stands for little more than the wild-eyed lust at the track’s core. I’m also afraid that for a lot of people the song typifies what they perceive as hip hop’s obsession with money and sexual objectification. Juvenile is under no obligation to be deeper or more nuanced than that — but in deference to the excellent work he’s produced over the years, it’s important to know that he is deeper and more nuanced than that.
If nothing else, listen to 400 Degreez in its entirety to hear how “Back That Azz Up” sounds couched within some of the rawest material Dirty South has ever engendered. The time is right. Let’s respect Juvenile’s legacy.