It is a very rare thing in hip-hop when rappers are granted a third act in their career. If you’re lucky, you will get a shot at a second but the third act is anomalous. LL Cool J told you not to call “Mama Said Knock You Out” a comeback but the truth is rap is a young man’s game and if you are lucky to get that second shot, you almost never get a third.
Juicy J is getting his opportunity to make the most of us his third shot on the wheel of fame. The first act of his career with Memphis rap legends, Three 6 Mafia, was the story of an under-appreciated underground group going from hustling mixtapes out of the trunk to achieving platinum-selling success. The second act saw the group unexpectedly conquering the American mainstream after their shocking victory at the Academy Awards for Best Song made them household names in 2006. Like so many gifts, though, it came with an unforeseen curse. Mainstream attention brought unwanted pressure and for a group that made their careers on a niche-y cult following, the group started to splinter under the expectations. Soon, the group dwindled to Juicy J and his fellow group leader, DJ Paul, before Three 6 Mafia finally fractured for good.
After the dissolution of the group, Juicy J laid low for a years, releasing a series of mixtapes that seemed to please hardcore fans but failed to attract the attention of hip-hop’s fickle mainstream. It seemed as if it were over for the Juice Man but in early 2013, he walked into the offices at Columbia and delivered “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” an instantly iconic stripper anthem that fans latched on to for it’s swirling, atmospheric production and memorable, sing-songy lyrics. Anticipation built for the release of a new solo album but as the months went by and no release came, fans wondered if “Bandz” were a one-time thing. Stay Trippy is finally here and I’m pleased to say that it does not disappoint.
Stay Trippy is exactly what it needs to be at this point in Juicy’s career. He’s doggedly sticking to his strengths and that persistence works in his favor here. As they enter the late stages of their careers, many artists fall into the trap of pushing a newfound “maturity” into places that feel dull and lifeless. As a man who is best known for rapping about syrup sipping, it would be lame if Juicy tried to rhyme about the existential angst of purchasing overpriced art. Tax advice rap is not Juicy’s wave, so what we get is a record about what Juicy loves: strippers, drugs and robbing people.
The production is where the real progression happens on the record. Juicy’s choice to eschew the dark Memphis crunk of Three 6 Mafia for the swirling atmospherics of Mike Will Made It’s upscale strip club aesthetic is a very wise decision. It’s the difference between a back-room nudie shack and popping bands at Scores. The album sounds like the blur of a three-day molly binge in Atlanta on All-Star Weekend. This is a good thing. At the same time, it feels close enough to the classic Three 6 Mafia sound that long-term fans are not going to feel that Juicy completely abandoned them to write pop songs for Miley Cyrus to twerk to.
A great sound can’t make up for an album lacking in songs and Juicy J delivers on that front, too. While nobody is ever going to accuse Juicy J of having bars, the album highlights a strong songwriting craft honed over twenty-years of writing stripper and codeine anthems. “Bandz A Make Her Dance” sounds as wickedly fun as when you first heard it and when it’s partnered with druggy party starters like “Bounce It,” “Smokin’, Rollin,” “Wax” and “Stop It,” the effect is enhanced. While Juicy J is not traditionally “lyrical” in the Kendrick-sense of the word, Juicy is funny and his hooks are ready for chanting. The strength of Juice and Three 6 Mafia was always the cathartic aggression channeled through their ability to turn everything into a chant. Juicy’s retains and builds on this quality throughout Stay Trippy.
While the album features some missteps—the song with Justin Timberlake (“The Woods”) is lifeless and the record feels a few songs too long—these are ultimately minor issues. Stay Trippy is a record that knows to stay within the lane that it’s carved for itself. Big-budget stripper rap has rarely sounded so fresh. Stay trippy for life, mane.