Like Jack Nicholson in Joker makeup, Atlanta producer Lil' Jon had already opened tanks of wildly accelerated crunk, the younger, grimier, zippier Southern acquaintance of Miami bass, into the mainstream's on-air supply. And like a sonic Strattera, commuting and clubbing pedestrians were consuming it in mass quantities before he switched the prescription to a zero-carb crunk and blues Usher confession and a dizzying anti-school suburbanite bandstand by Trillville called "Neva Eva."
This was the summer when radios were supposed to fall over like cartoon alarm clocks, when club furniture would be flipped and torn, and when rap essentially became the new, anarchic heavy metal that M.O.P. (Mash Out Posse) had been so eagerly growling about but still couldn't cash in on. Then again, it was also the summer when Roc-A-Fella's crayola Dali, Camöron, was supposed to cover Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," shooting his Harlem Diplomats towards the heights that Hova once reached, before it was mysteriously shelved.
Meanwhile, Juvenile's well-publicized falling out with Cash Money's Baby and Mannie Fresh was swept under a Hummer. But during his absence, the subsequent reign of Aftermath, Lil' Jon, and the "Gangsta Girl" video (in which Cash Money's CEOs cruised down Miami's MacArthur Causeway with R. Kelly) overshadowed the original "Ha" man's run with his disenfranchised Hot Boys. So when he returned with Cash Money backing him on Juve the Great last December, no one outside of his öNolia click was messing with him. His first single, "In My Life," was quaintly nostalgic. The limp Mannie "Fr-er-rer-fresh" synth stunning and grocery list of "cars, clothes, jewels, hoes" nearly made Juve's proclamation that 2004 is "My year mon/The big reason I'm about to kick it into gear mon" a hollow one.
But "Slow Motion," a flawless collabo with the late Soulja Slim produced by Dani Kartel, is on some Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince "Summertime"-by-numbers goodness, topping the Billboard Hot 100 charts last July 29. A lethargic guitar string serves as "Slow Motion's" flag mast as bass lines and a building percussive blast float casually around it, allowing Slim and Juve to enunciate the hook, "Uh! I like it like that, she's working that back, I don't know how to act," like they're roasting slabs of meat on the grill. If the video's odd, paint-drying shots of Juve in alleyways had been replaced with strictly booty imagery, this banger would have monopolized the remainder of our BBQ cookouts this summer.
Another Hot Boy, Lil' Wayne a.k.a. Birdman Jr., tallied up exponentially less spins for "Bring it Back," even as he anointed himself as a young 'Pac and "the best rapper alive" in rap pages thick as a Dade phonebook. As Juve keeps it rooted in '98, Wheezy exhibits a curious affinity for NYC, first branding his album The Carter in partial respect to the crack house in New Jack City, and then announcing an ominous new label he's starting with Cam'ron. Making moves, for sure, so what's keeping Lil' Wayne from bubbling on the charts?
Perhaps it's the prefix, which was also being leased by two fresher Southern young guns this summer, Lil' Flip and Lil' Scrappy. A gang of tokens dropping out of his sagging pockets from "Game Over (Flip)," off the throw-back double LP U Gotta Feel Me, Houston's cornrowed Leprechaun issued a major follow up, "Sunshine," a lyrically wrecked concoction of crossover sap that should be an official second-to-none pop mega-single as this story goes to print. It sounds unbearable, though. Flip's novice canary Lea chirps the choice line, "We don't have to be in love, we can just be friends," as Flip infamously rhymes that he'll spoil her like milk. However, T.I.'s breezy "Let's Get Away," overseen by Jazze Pha, utilized female vocals that could please both sexes. Or maybe the ideal compromise of rap and blues was Akon's "Locked Up."
Like a cold punch to the face, Lil' Scrappy delivered "No Problem," a harrowing coal chamber leaving tender pipe bruises with its ride or die instigation, "You can get crunk in the club/Roll wit your 'hood/Get stomped in the club/Or you could get buck in the club/Get fucked in the club/We don't give a fuck." Riding shotgun with Lil' Jon, the twenty-year old emcee put on his signature frown through a classic slow-mo video tribute to Training Day, making for a straight-to-Netflix hip-hop drama Dame Dash needs to funnel pronto. "No Problem" is a stark slamdance portending a fall season currently led by Nas's "Thief's Theme," the God Son's nocturnal ode to crime set over the creepy crawler, devil-fisted sludge of Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," courtesy of Salaam Remi; and, holy shit, "Let's Go" by Trick Daddy, a way-out Slip-N-Slide jock jam corrupted by a party of stupidly sizzurped Satanists, Ozzy Osbourne, and a contractually obligated Lil' Jon.
Meanwhile, Mobb Deep's Havoc ended up selling his career defining beat to Jadakiss. The Yonkers champ croaked a bird call and promptly unraveled 52 questions over "Why," saving one for the very Training Day flick idolized in "No Problem": "Why did Denzel have to be crooked before he won it?" (öKiss fails to ask why he put Mariah Carey on Kiss of Death.) A food-for-thought banger with a soulful sweet tooth in crooner Anthony Hamilton, "Why" runs the president, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and "that whore" across urban radio. Though intrinsically less provocative after the first listen, it stamps Election Day in the dome more effectively than any "Vote or Die" T-shirt.
There were two dances to choose from last summer. One, the absurd "Jesus Walks" dance, sent you straight to hell. The other was simply ingenious in a way only the King Koopa of this rap shit, in all his street-smirking seriousness, could have concocted. Hands down, "Lean Back" was the drink-in-hand, now-do-the-rockaway anthem that could not be fucked with, because who can clown on an anti-dance?
It's beyond smart. Once faceless producer Scott Storch has gone public off the heavyweight hit's exposure (and since Dr. Dre scrapped Detox, that's a rule for survival). Hearing Joey Crack parlay, "Said my niggaz don't dance, we just pull up our pants" over the high-stakes hum of Storch's studious violin samples ... Well, that's a classy rumble, the kind of effort that sends a competitor to the top, standing tall as he watches other worthy contenders change lanes, crash, and false start for the rest of a hip-hop summer.