We’re Still Here
Juvenile and Lil Wayne Deliver the First Hip-Hop Records From Post-Katrina New Orleans
A school bus crashed into a brick wall, suspended there as if on invisible metal cords. Houses collapsed, strewn with debris, mottled with mildew and grime. Children tossing empty water bottles off a bridge, carried downward by tiny parachutes. A man unfurling a handwritten banner that reads we’re still here. Three children walking through ghost-town streets wearing George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Ray Nagin masks.
Juvenile’s new video for “Get Ya Hustle On” is unexpected to say the least. It’s the first hip-hop document from post-Katrina New Orleans, landing somewhere between PBS documentary footage and a circa-’93 hoodies-and-Timbs rap video. It’s rough and contradictory and pretentious. It’s also bracing in an MTV rotation whose sense of recent history ends sometime last Tuesday after a particularly good night at the strip club.
So, of course, Juve slams a minute’s worth of “What’s Happenin’”—a typical N’awlins bounce tale of scheming skeezers and the thugs who love them—onto the back end of the video. “It’s nice to know that, even after mass tragedy, bitches still ain’t shit,” a female friend quipped after a breathless, and then defeated, first viewing.
Hip-hop righteousness has always hidden a pimp hand in its back pocket; you can’t talk about Public Enemy without also ’fessing to the gross misogyny of tracks such as “Sophisticated Bitch.” It’s probably ridiculous to expect any pop musician to be as upright as a preacher. It’s doubly ridiculous to expect the perpetually flossing Cash Money Millionaires to transform into Kofi Annan overnight.
Back in ’98, Juvenile, with a flow that sounded like he had a jar of peanut butter on the roof of his mouth, brought the elastic dance beats of New Orleans bounce to miniature-golf courses across America, all while raising conspicuous consumption to high art. (Cash Money, after all, is the label that made the term bling-bling safe for fortysomething white women everywhere.) Whenever asses needed to be backed up, the Hot Boys would be there. Music for the club has no higher virtue.
Now broken with Cash Money over contractual disputes, Juvenile’s new Reality Check (Atlantic) takes sideswipes at the federal government, local Louisiana politicians, and our fearless leader. (“I’m going to keep pushing this rap shit because I ain’t fuckin’ with Bush,” he seethes on “Rock Like That.”) But mostly Juve is still looking for a girl who can “ride it like a rodeo,” pulling out the burner in the club, and dissing Cash Money CEO Baby “Birdman” Williams over the minor-key melodies, finger snaps, and aggressively cheap-sounding drum machines of Southern rap in 2006. Losing everything in Katrina and witnessing the tragic bungling of its aftermath has changed Juvenile, but he also knows that what befits a rap legend (and his bank account) most is giving his constituency what they want.
Not quite yet a legend, Lil Wayne first appeared alongside Juve at the tail end of the ’90s as a 15-year-old mannish (hot) boy who barely had chest hair but had already lived a lifetime. On the new Tha Carter II (Cash Money), which snuck out last December, he’s still got the lean body of a teenager but sounds like a middle-aged man, with a weighted-down croak that complements his hooded eyes. Between cutting albums—he’s made five in six years—Wayne’s been studying for a bachelor’s degree at the University of Houston. Last year he was made president of Cash Money. He’s 23.
Tha Carter II is not an easy album, but it’s one of the best hip-hop records of the last 12 months. Far from the block-letter verses of the early Cash Money records, Wayne now spits rhymes as long and wiry as his limbs, the kind beloved of rap critics and hip-hop fans for which “good lyrics” are the Holy Grail. Low on hooks but high on work, Tha Carter II often feels more like a polished mix tape than a pop album, one that won’t yield any hit singles but amply rewards repeat listens. Wayne has matured into New Orleans’ best rapper, if not “the motherfuckin’ best yet,” as he boasts on “Best Rapper Alive.”
Mostly produced by the Heatmakerz, the beats on Tha Carter II don’t feel much like New Orleans, instead using the trigger-click drums and twittering Isley Brothers samples the producers use for up-north rappers. And, like Juvenile, Wayne isn’t saying much, but his ways of saying the same ol’ shit follow meters that would have poetry grad students boggling. The fact that this son of the 17th Ward now duets with Growing Pains star Alan Thicke’s son is a pretty good indication of how far afield he’s traveled. And, though he disses FEMA once (on “Feel Me,” though mostly because the album was recorded before Katrina hit) and still reps his hometown, Wayne no longer lives within Crescent City limits.
Last year, Cocaine Blunts and Hip-Hop Tapes, a popular MP3 blog, put together Bounce 4 Relief, a collection of rare and early New Orleans rap. (Lil Wayne was barely out of kindergarten when most were cut.) You downloaded it and were then obliged to donate to the Red Cross or a similar organization. “Sure the superstars are accounted for, and many have stepped up to help,” Cocaine Blunts’ Noz wrote. “But who could even guess the current health status of the true local celebs, like many of those [on the collection]?”
Shortly thereafter, on one of the hundreds of TV specials that ran in the aftermath of Katrina, an aging jazz musician was reduced to tears at the thought of New Orleans musical history stopping dead on Aug. 29, 2005. More than any protest song—more people saw or heard about Kanye West’s truth-to-power moment last year than will ever see the video for “Get Ya Hustle On”—the continued vitality of New Orleans rap is its own form of renewal, speaking to a displaced community and refusing to let the old neighborhoods be bulldozed and big-boxed and prepped for a renewed tourist trade. Repetition can be its own form of resistance—sometimes even if it’s just money, cash, hos.
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