Consider for a moment the underground-legend-cum-mainstream-success trajectory of Juicy J’s career, and it’s easy to see that his influence on culture is labyrinthine and far-reaching. O.G. progenitor of the double-cup Gothic swirl currently occupying hip-hop’s mainstream, the Juice Man is equally as inspiring to legions of Tumblrgen pastiche-rappers indebted to the trunk-slapping legacy of Three 6 Mafia as he is to coked-up spring breakers experimenting with “being ratchet.” He refuses to reconcile his trippy, singular vision of the world with his apparent mainline on the beat of pop culture; this makes for both a devastatingly self-assured presence on the mic and a brazen sonic sensibility. When Juicy J is in his zone, he’s unstoppable, with a knack for converting throwaway slogans into positively transcendent pop hooks. As he himself jokes on “So Much Money,” music industry bosses are frothing at the mouth to capitalize on the apparent fountain of endless hooks that is Juicy J: “I told ‘em bands a make her dance/ I turned my head/ That shit charted.”
At first glance, it seems odd that Juicy J’s cultural import is finally coming to a head nearly a decade after the release of Three 6 Mafia’s commercial breakthrough, Most Known Unknown (2005), but given the non-linear movement of influence in hip-hop today, the Memphis king’s swelling cultural capital actually makes perfect sense. Back when Three 6 Mafia’s mutant strain of tranquilized Southern ghetto Gothic was blowing the hip-hop underground’s collective mind throughout the 90s, their sound was bound entirely to the urban geography that defined them, inaccessible in a popular sense except to hip-hop obsessives and to those who were directly involved.
Fast forward to 2013 and legions of pastiche-friendly cyber-age rappers are building careers off personas and styles keenly indebted to the legacy of Three 6 and the Juice Man, some of them even converting their projects into vehicles for mainstream success. If artists could collect royalties on the projects they went on to influence stylistically, I’d wager that Juicy J would find himself sitting prettier than his most opulent and consequently least similar contemporary.
Stay Trippy, Juicy’s third solo effort and biggest-budget project to date, drops in the same year when Spring Breakers was a box-office smash and Miley Cyrus told her producers to make her music sound “feel black.” Consumerist America has never been more darkly obsessed with the figure of the hustler, simultaneously the victor and victim of 21st-century capitalism. For White America, Juicy J’s persona embodies the religious pursuit of material wealth that people tend to publicly dismiss as “superficial” but all secretly fetishize: the flashy, Machiavellian opulence of the one who lives to get money.
Preceded by a momentum-gathering triumvirate of hit singles, including 2013’s ubiquitous lasers in the strip club anthem “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” Stay Trippy is vintage Juicy J primed for the mainstream and renewed for the sonic now with an honor roll of hi-tech producers de jour (Mike Will Made It, Young Chop, Timbaland) and well-placed feature spots from party rap’s royal family (Lil Wayne, Chris Brown, 2 Chainz). Even prior to the release of the album, the memetic infectiousness of singles like “Bandz” and the nearly-identical but still pretty great “Bounce It” confirmed that Juicy J has succeeded in turning underground clout into pop appeal. Juicy J can’t afford to care solely about the pop market, though; his continued relevance is staked on his status as a left-field maverick, so even if the record sees him embracing his mainstream appeal, it’s crucial that he finds new and exciting ways to basically not give a fuck.
As it turns out, poppy trance-twerk does not make up the bulk of Stay Trippy, and this is not a bad thing. In fact, what makes it a rewarding listen is the way it simultaneously profits off mainstream appropriation of the “trap” aesthetic while still managing to critique its faulty mechanisms and mindset from the inside. While former Disney teen stars continue to bust out ill-advised dance moves in an effort to align their personal brands more closely with the devil-may-care party lifestyle championed in Juicy J’s chart hits, what they fail to register are the harsh realities that underlie Juicy’s fascination with excess.
On a surface level, “Bandz” and “Bounce It” are essentially just odes to quality ass-shaking, but hidden deep within their intoxicating swirl there lurks some very sobering dictum on the bleak metaphysics coded into strip club phenomena — the deceptively simple parallelism of “They showing racks/ We throwing racks,” for instance, collapses objectified sexual value and cash into a single image, elucidating the ill-fated monomania at the heart of even the sharpest hustler mentalities. Taking production cues from the automated, fatalistic clamor of Chicago drill, roughly a fourth of the tracks here see Juicy in a decidedly graver lyrical mode. He doesn’t hesitate to expose the circuitous tragedy that befalls the trap lifestyle, repeatedly exhibiting a weary frustration with the zero-sum posturing that hip-hop’s rising stars continue to perpetuate: “All you trap niggas are victims,” he declaims on “Gun Plus A Mask,” concluding without a hint of pity, “Jackers gon’ catch you slippin’/ Feelin’ yourself/ Flashing this stuntin’/ Niggas gon’ come up missing.”
The fact that Juicy J refuses to gloss over the fatal violence that still plagues his community at the root suggests that he is well aware of his unique status in pop culture, yet refuses to compromise himself because of it. The sonics of the record reflect this stance; stylistically, Stay Trippy distills the sonic extremes of contemporary hip-hop into a potent hybrid of radio-friendly sheen and hard-knocking street fatalism. Album opener “Stop It” showcases this style well: over a buoyant, off-kilter Memphis bounce blazed through with hovering UFO synths, the trippy prince makes an unadorned entrance by laying down a few plainspoken instructions: “Make money/ No vacation/ Pay cash/ Don’t make payments.” Later, in the chorus, the religious significance of cash emerges through subtle double entendre: “I make money all day/ Then I ball with the profits.”
Point being, Juicy J’s smooth transition to mainstream success hasn’t hurt his ability to make music that resonates with people on an elemental level, his lyrics more affecting for the fact that they rarely resort to moral judgement. The way he enunciates his syllables deliberately and precisely, like he knows exactly what he’s doing with every word, circumvents the tendency some rappers have to inject their rhymes with cheap pathos, allowing his elegantly plainspoken street wisdom to operate in a less signifying, more structurally sensitive realm. His flow is prophetic, like’s he’s just handing down the unvarnished word of the trippy gods, and on Stay Trippy, Juicy J sounds as energized, self-assured, and dangerous as ever.