A rap­per strad­dles ob­scu­rity and fame

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY CHARLES THAX­TON

In much of to­day’s pop-cul­ture com­men­tary, mu­si­cians seem less like artists and more like sym­bolic sound­ing boards for the­ory-in­clined crit­ics. How do Bey­oncé and Tay­lor Swift per­form third-wave fem­i­nism? What does One Di­rec­tion say about the semi­otics of fandom? Can we parse Ken­drick La­mar’s lyrics to do crit­i­cal race the­ory?

Leon Ney­fakh, a staff writer at Slate, ac­com­plishes some­thing far bet­ter than that in his new book, “The Next Next Level.” This study of a goofy white rap­per from Wis­con­sin who calls him­self Juice­boxxx is also a thought­ful, of­ten mov­ing nar­ra­tive about friend­ship, ide­al­ism and am­bi­tion. Through a com­bi­na­tion of in­ter­views, anal­y­sis and nar­ra­tive, Ney­fakh of­fers an in­trigu­ing pro­file of an artist work­ing be­tween ob­scu­rity and fame, corni­ness and know­ing­ness.

Juice­boxxx, or “Juice” as Ney­fakh calls him, emerged in the past decade or so be­tween the realms of “nerd­core,” rap that deals jok­ingly with sci-fi and comic-book ref­er­ences, and acts like Lil B, Das Racist and Die Antwo­ord, outre mu­si­cians who make the ten­sion be­tween irony and sin­cer­ity cen­tral to their aes­thetic. “If Juice­boxxx was mak­ing fun of him­self,” Ney­fakh writes, “the joke was man­i­festly wrapped up in a thick layer of earnest­ness.”

Ney­fakh has had his eye on this rap­per for a long time. The two of them are sort of child­hood friends. As a high schooler, Ney­fakh booked Juice to play at an all-ages rock show in an Oak Park church base­ment. Ney­fakh was awed by the per­for­mance, which con­sisted chiefly of the scrawny, shirt­less teenager plug­ging in his por­ta­ble CD player for a back­ing track and flail­ing around on stage and work­ing the mea­ger au­di­ence into ec­stasy.

While Ney­fakh went on to col­lege and be­came a jour­nal­ist, Juice­boxxx self- re­leased al­bums, toured doggedly and built up a rep­u­ta­tion in un­der­ground mu­sic scenes. The two lost touch, but Ney­fakh never stopped lis­ten­ing. Juice be­came a pro­jec­tion of ev­ery­thing wild and au­then­tic in Amer­i­can cul­ture. Ney­fakh is his evan­ge­list. He de­scribes Juice’s rap per­sona as “that of an earnest, if some­what de­mented, mo­ti­va­tional speaker.” His lyrics hold “a truly pre­car­i­ous foot­ing on the bor­der be­tween de­spair and hope.”

De­spite Ney­fakh’s en­thu­si­asm for Juice, he never loses his re­por­to­rial in­stinct to an­a­lyze the place of the artist in a dim econ­omy. Their con­ver­sa­tions over cof­fee in Brook­lyn be­gin as an awk­ward rekin­dling but slowly trans­form to sub­stan­tial di­a­logues about pop­u­lar­ity and crit­i­cal in­tegrity. In­deed, Ney­fakh’s book could be among the first en­tries in an emerg­ing “pop­ti­mist” canon — the idea that mu­sic can and ought to have both crit­i­cal in­tegrity and main­stream ap­peal.

As Ney­fakh re­flects on the dis­tance be­tween him­self and his friend, he also chan­nels some­thing at the heart of the Amer­i­can tra­di­tion: the gulf be­tween main­stream so­ci­ety and its dream­ers. There’s some­thing ap­peal­ing, even Gats­byesque go­ing on here.

The real dra­matic turn comes as Ney­fakh ac­cepts Juice’s own self-con­scious doubts. Juice isn’t the su­per­hu­man artist Ney­fakh once thought him to be, but, even more im­por­tant, he’s a se­ri­ously hu­man one.

THE NEXT NEXT LEVEL A Story of Rap, Friend­ship, and Al­most Giv­ing Up By Leon Ney­fakh Melville. 170 pp. Pa­per­back; $16.95

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