Book Review: The Next Next Level: A Story of Rap, Friendship, and Almost Giving Up “Could it be that while everyone else on the planet moves to New York to chase their dream, Juiceboxxx had come to bury his?””

If you don’t know about Milwaukee rapper Juiceboxxx, should you even bother to finish this review, or even to pick up a book about him? While some of the details of Juiceboxxx’s life, and, especially, his personality, might not come across the same way to someone stumbling upon him for the first time versus a seasoned “Boxx head,” Leon Neyfakh went ahead and wrote an entire book about the man. I mean, let’s be real, do you really think Lena Dunham, Chuck Klosterman, and Craig Finn (whose quotes grace the front and back covers) were aware of a bizarre white rap-rocker who sells energy drinks called Thunderzone? I highly doubt it, but their perspectives are spot on: The Next Next Level may focus on two individuals (JB and Neyfakh), but it’s a story about growing up, being comfortable with our paths in life, and the struggles of the artist in the 21st century.

Part fan-penned biography, part memoir, Neyfakh’s The Next Next Level explores his long standing friendship with Juiceboxxx, a D.I.Y. road warrior whose nomadic lifestyle sharply contrasts Neyfakh, an Ivy League-educated writer with a wife, dog, and a Brooklyn Heights apartment. Through a mutual friend they’ve remained connected since their teen years, when Neyfakh booked JB for a show at a local church/makeshift show space.

During those years, Juiceboxxx dropped out of college and went on tour as much as possible, while Neyfakh pursued what most would refer to as a normal life. JB attained a couple of hints of success, but he also fell deep into what he’s coined as “the darkness”: getting booed, quite often, onstage by hundreds of people; releasing an album to little or no fanfare; and living in L.A. without a car. When Neyfakh meets up with Juice in the opening pages, we’re presented with the book’s central theme (“But could it be that while everyone else on the planet moves to New York to chase their dream, Juiceboxxx had come to bury his?”). While it may be spoiling things to say that Juiceboxxx is still in New York as of this writing, and just released a new record (Heartland 99), it doesn’t take away from the touching relationship that Neyfakh presents in this brisk work that wisely opts to be less a straight-up biography of Juiceboxxx, and more an examination of the relationship between fandom and artistry.

In his portrayal of Juiceboxxx and himself, Neyfakh explores the choices both he and Juiceboxxx have made in their lives, and in one rather cringeworthy chapter (“Genius vs. Critic”), he describes his teenage desire to become a Juiceboxxx-esque rapper. The section is hard to read, on the one hand, because all music fans out there can recall how they, in their earnest teenage manner, pursued an art that was a clear imitation of their heroes. It’s also essential to the book because it’s here where we better understand Neyfakh’s attraction to the rapper: “Where I, like many, used to dream of becoming an artist, I have instead turned out to be a professional: a reporter with a solid career writing feature stories for a newspaper. Juice, meanwhile, seems to be taking stock of all the comfort and stability he’s given up by committing himself to his art, and trying to figure out if he can keep on doing it — and what he’ll do if he can’t — as he gets closer and closer to being a 30-year old man.” It’s a striking way to end a chapter, and especially for a reviewer who sees a lot of similarities between himself and Neyfakh, as I’m sure a lot of music journalists can, there’s that divide between the creation of art and the consumption/analysis of it, from which we can never get away.

The way that Neyfakh writes, as a subjective fan, is what makes this book mostly a pleasure to read. That perspective does manifest into one particularly weak chapter (“Stupid, Stupid, Stupid”), which focuses on the author’s distaste for the “sloppy and rowdy” music of Wavves in favor of the “heady or careful music” of bands like Real Estate. It’s something that wouldn’t be out of place as an article somewhere else, but as a chapter within The Next Next Level it doesn’t work.

The book is on a steady, enjoyable course when it focuses on that dynamic, but when it diverts, as it does in that one chapter, the book takes a bit of nosedive, but thankfully rebounds at the end. What’s great about the book is to learn what a huge Juiceboxxx freak Neyfakh is, whether he’s combing through the rapper’s blog from start to finish, or taking a latenight trip to a hardcore house party to see Juiceboxxx DJ. It’s an engaging story for all music fans, whether you’re aware of Juiceboxxx or not. In The Next Next Level we’re treated to a story about one listener’s journey from fan to friend, and how he may be the one responsible, after a decade and more on the outskirts of fame, for introducing Juiceboxxx to his biggest audience yet.

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