Review: Juiceboxxx – Heartland 99 (2015)

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The first time I ever saw Juiceboxxx was at the now defunct Darling Hall in Milwaukee in 2006 (it was close to Conejito’s if you know where that is). His live performance was an ecstatic mix of in your face MC brashness and crowd manipulation not far removed from Dan Deacon performances (here is a video from that year of Dan checking out Juiceboxxx doing a freestyle in New York and here is a video of him promoting Juiceboxxx’s energy drink). At the time his album R U There God?? Itz Me Juiceboxxx had just come out and it was hands down the best release in Wisconsin of that year. It was largely true to the sound of classic hip-hop. He toured with Public Enemy a few years later, which confirms his knowledge and commitment to the sound.

Through the years Juiceboxxx has kept at it: he released some great dance rap singles for Vicious Pop and iHeartcomix, a stellar mix tape that featured tracks with Spank Rock and Teengirl Fantasy and recently in 2012, I Don’t Want to Go Into the Darkness which was his first album since 2006. “Like a Renegade” was the breakthrough song from the album; it gained some unwanted publicity from a poorly dubbed performance on live TV. The sound of this album was something new for Juice as it was akin to the rap rock of the Beastie Boys; this makes sense in retrospect given the fact he often performs with rock bands and at rock venues. It is important to remember that the rapper’s milieux the past nine years has been constant touring through out the states and much of the world. He sights the aforementioned tour with Public Enemy as a turning point in this interview with Vice. His new sound could be a reflection of the expectations and norms pressed upon him while touring; the norms and expectations being that he has to sound like an established white rapper to be a white rapper. I Don’t Want to Go Into the Darkness was largely about not giving up and staying true to your dreams. The desperation of the release has perhaps paid off: the issue of his new album Heartland 99 on his own Thunder Zone label found news sources Rolling Stone, Slate, the Fader and the Guardian covering the artist. Pitchfork even featured an article about a book that was being written about Juiceboxxx.

“Walking in Milwaukee” kicks the record off with some excellent hometown flow, rhythmic guitar and distortion. Chants and scratches accent the hook. “The Losers” sticks with dismal attitude of “Walking in Milwaukee” and has a plethora of instruments: distorted bass drives the song, E-Street band piano enters and exits, chimes ring and inventive synth runs occasionally vaporize. On it Juice vocalizes, “Running on empty through the rustbelt decay/ Out of our brains and onto the speedway/ And the world don’t get us but we never were in step/ And I know that we’re losers but baby were not done yet”. “On the Line” features a minimal staccato synth, beefy drums and sustained distortion. Some nice production work featuring a flanger wiggle and synthetic crescendo segues to an optimistically stark chorus that speaks to Juiceboxxx’s relentess commitment to his art despite the bleakness he is surrounded by with the lines, “Got a broken spine/ but I am feeling fine/ Every night I put it on the line”. “Like a Maniac” and “Open Up Your Life” both play like a Suicide song with their strong synth lines. “Like a Maniac” has some major shredding, a Latin beat, handclaps and a very impressive studio as an instrument effort. The lines “Milwaukee Maniac” (a label Juice put on himself some time ago) are repeated as he says, “I locked the door and I can’t get in/ Wasted in the night in oblivion/ but I can’t handle, man; I just can’t hang/ Too freaked out and I’m going insane”. “Open Up Your Life” is gentler with plucked guitar and glockenspiel; it all breaks down at the end in punk fashion.

“Heartland 99” features blasted fuzz bass, memorable indistinct guitar during the chorus and impactful produced vocals during the intro. An exotic synth run commences the outro, which features a burst of noise. “The Ragers” is a dirty jam featuring some nasty guitar licks, a high frequency synth, bubbly production, some nice cut up drum breaks and a complicated piano riff that concludes the song. Juiceboxxx chronicles the nausea of necessitated constant celebration, “I can’t remember how long that I been riding on this road/ but the parties every night, hey man, they start to feel so old/ you mind is gone, your body’s weak but you need to make it through/ you gotta climb the mountain if you want to see the view”. “Hometown Hero (I Ain’t No)” is more hip-hop orientated with excellent scratching on the hook. On it Juice puts to record his struggle to gain support, understanding  and a universal following in the city that he calls home. “Anytown USA” has tom fills, reverbed production and a funky intricate synth line that comes in half way through the song. “Follow Your Fucked Up Dreams” ends the album with a hypnotic lead melody; Juiceboxxx preaches the importance of not giving up.

This album is a manifestation of the sounds, the grit and the despair of present day America. It is a brilliant display of multiculturalism as well as exceptionally produced and provides hope to those who could be in need of it. Whether he likes it or not, it is great to have such a thoroughly Milwaukeean artist represent his home city and state. For all of these reasons Heartland 99 is a must listen and is the best release so far this year to have come out of Wisconsin.

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