Sharps & Flats

Juvenile's rhymes are near idiotic, but the production -- that's another story.

Published January 19, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Drawling their way out of New Orleans with gaudy flash and a ghetto-dandy lean, the players in the Cash Money crew stormed hip-hop by giving bad taste a good name. Or by giving good taste a bad name. The rappers rhyme about eating Popeye's fried chicken and keepin' it real while spinning tales about shopping for Jaguars and lubricating their rubbers with Cristal. Both sides -- the profanely sacred and the sacredly profane -- speak for the work of the label's house producer and genius-in-residence Mannie Fresh, who harvests a stunning take on hip-hop futurism from a minefield of such dubious musical styles as Miami booty bass, discount-bin techno and heartless hip-hop candy grams.

In the hip-hop world, where beat-writing producers share star status with rappers, Fresh is the foundation of the Cash Money franchise. Harking back to the days when a central figure presided over the proprietary sounds created by in-house record label teams (Booker T. & the MG's at Stax, Willie Mitchell at Hi, Berry Gordy at Motown, to name a few), Fresh's good-time mix of Southern electro bounce has given Cash Money a string of chart hits and a bank account to back up the name.

Of course, none of this is new to a genre that has long been marked by ingenious branding initiatives and regional lines drawn like Middle Eastern borders. Fresh has simply grabbed the title of Deep-Delta South Director -- just as Dr. Dre once did on the West Coast and Wu Tang Clan's RZA did on the East -- while helping stop hip-hop's wandering eye on his plastic-beaded homeland.

Fresh's production on Juvenile's "Tha G-Code" announces its N'awlins-ness from the start, sounding on "Big Tymer Intro" like a brass band sucking up all the orgiastic schlock of Bourbon Street through its horns. All at once, in a brief warm-up, the Cash Money formula's brain-be-gone, booty-be-backed-up policy is set in place. The music is tacky in its individual parts, but when the corny horns, naive synths and dime-store rhythm tracks find shape by Fresh's hand, they take on a revival-ready quality that only gets more revelatory as he stretches and marches further into the electronic underground.

Which is what he does on "U Understand," the record's first single. Measured in stutter-steps and wavering beat counts, the song draws its vocabulary almost completely from electronica -- all phasing tricks and unrecognizably bubbling sound sources -- while Juvenile lays out his gauze-wrapped drawl with lazy Southern cool.

As a rapper, Juvenile is all about articulation. His smash hit, "Ha," from his breakout fourth record "400 Degreez" (1998), revolved around a peculiar, almost evangelical, verbal tic coughed up to punctuate his down-home delivery, fittingly referred to as an "off the porch" flow. And his choppy, breathy cadence, smoothed out by a slow-pouring elisiontweenwords, rocks and sways more like old call-and-response work songs than Bronx-bombed rap speak. Swallowing words and riding his accent for all it's worth, Juvenile constantly threatens to slip back behind the beat in a way that always works to bevel the edges of Fresh's heady, fractured rhythms.

Despite his distinguished vocalization, though, Juvenile, and all of the Cash Money crew for that matter, has next to nothing to say. "Something got to shake, nigga/Gonna bake a cake, nigga," goes one particularly abysmal chorus on "Tha G-Code." Beyond that, most of the record's lyrics stick close to the rote gangsta-glam world of click-clack gun slinging, Oscar Meyer-defaming dick jokes, Hummers and hummers. And murder, too, lots of murder.

The one redeeming factor in Juvenile's mostly miserable lyrics is that they make it easier to slip underneath the words and stay mired in Fresh's music. On, um, "Fuck That Nigga," Fresh rings bells that sound like field recordings from the set of "The Price Is Right" overtop a soul guitar chorus soothing enough for Al Green. Picking up the pace and jumping into full-on bounce mode, "A Million and One Things" is a funky grind that shares its single-minded allegiance to groove with the most relentless '70s disco.

Similarly reveling in its flashy excess and willfully mindless ideology, old disco makes for as suitable a Cash Money reference point as any. On "Tha G-Code," Juvenile and his labelmate rappers adequately hold court, but the beat is most definitely king. And Mannie Fresh, with old-school smarts befitting his name and a new-school ear for electro-futurism, drums up some of the most justifiably throne-worthy beats around.

By Andy Battaglia

Andy Battaglia is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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