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Juvenile - 400 Degreez Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today we explore the rise of Cash Money on Juvenile’s 1998 classic 400 Degreez.

There’s a title card, but within seconds, the setting is unmistakable:

Magnolia Housing Projects 

New Orleans

You see the rows of buildings stretching out toward the horizon, seemingly vacant and endless. A hard cut and suddenly, the frame fills with action: Juvenile in the foreground, perched over a puddle, a sea of Magnolia residents waving their arms behind him, hanging from balconies, poking curious heads out of windows. That’s you with that big-body Benz, ha?

You see Juve shirtless, shimmering with sweat; he’s grimacing in front of convertibles; he’s showing off his gold fronts in jarring close-up; he’s rapping animatedly—skinnier than you expect, all elbows and sharp angles—in front of a mural bearing the projects’ official name, C.J. Peete; he’s dancing around a porch while the family that lives there sits motionless; he’s mugging in a hallway next to Baby and Mannie Fresh; he’s shadowboxing.

The rest of Magnolia pops to life, either in eerily real tracking shots or in static frames that might as well be portraits. Kids jump on cast-off mattresses. Women in church clothes pose soberly—so do EMTs, with arms crossed in front of their ambulance. Magnolians get chased and cuffed and clutched by their fathers. There are roller skaters and pickup basketball games. A man on crutches hobbles down a street lit only by that ambulance’s siren lights; a boy feeds a piece of deli meat to a dog; money is counted and blurs until the bills are indistinguishable.

This is “Ha,” one of the most singularly brilliant rap songs of the 1990s. It’s been interpolated by people who win Pulitzers and bitten by countless young rappers, either in their formative periods or when they fly a little too close to the sun. Its video, directed by Marc Klasfeld, is genuinely stunning—spare but stylized, high art from self-consciously low production budgets, a four-minute blueprint for the rap videos that would come after the massive budgets from the Hype Williams era evaporated. There are no yachts. The whole thing takes place in and around Magnolia, where Klasfeld and his team set up camp for three days. Juve claimed that “all the drug dealers shut down” to accommodate production.

Even today, “Ha” sounds like it’s from the future, except when it sounds like it’s from the lobby of your building. Juve is sly and sarcastic, writing in the second person, ribbing you about child-support payments and switching to Reeboks and finally figuring out how to use your triple-beam. Juve laughs and sneers and, occasionally, commiserates. It’s a writing exercise. It’s also the platonic ideal of a rap song: mean, minimal, funny, foreign. Mannie’s beat is a rattling, electronic taunt, and its coda, which could have easily anchored another hit song, is free and acrobatic and full of bounce.

But underneath the grit and grinning was a mission statement. “Ha” announced to America that Cash Money Records, a New Orleans label that had made a well-timed pivot to rap, would be taking over in the new millennium. Universal had agreed, in a historically lucrative deal, to throw its weight behind the smaller label, and Cash Money countered with Juve’s third record, 400 Degreez. It’s a masterpiece—swaggering but paranoid, pained but free. It’s the sweatiest, funkiest parts of New Orleans culture packaged for export, and it would go on to become one of the most consequential rap records of its era and the next.

Long before the Universal deal, Cash Money was a shoestring operation founded by a pair of brothers, Bryan and Ronald Williams. (You know Bryan as Baby or Birdman; if you know Ronald, you know him as Slim.) At first, it was a label for bounce music, the tight, energetic genre built on bass and various chops of the “Dragnet” theme. And it’s impossible to talk about bounce and rap in New Orleans without talking, first, about Mannie Fresh. Byron Thomas was the son of a DJ who gave his son instruments and hardware before he knew what to do with them; when Byron heard Afrika Bambaataa’s electro-futurist “Planet Rock,” the gear started to make sense. He adopted the name Mannie Fresh and embarked on a career DJing and producing that would make him one of the most acutely influential producers in the history of Southern music.

From his earliest drafts, Mannie’s beats were deliriously danceable; soon, they were also punishing. He was able to flit between bounce and rap (and marry the two), but as Cash Money moved fully into hip-hop, he became the chief architect of its sound. Musically, he was Cash Money. It was one of his beats for a U.N.L.V. song called “Drag ’Em in the River,” that first attracted the attention of a young rapper who had been going by the name Juvenile.

Juve was born Terius Grey in March of 1975 and spent much of his formative years in those Magnolia Projects in Uptown New Orleans. While he was still in his teens, Juve had a foot in the city’s rap and bounce music scenes. With basically no recorded music, he was playing a near-endless string of raucous live shows, marching from spot to spot, hole-in-the-wall bar to high school parking lot, rapping for anyone who would listen. It worked. According to Mannie, people in the city would know the lyrics to Juve’s songs before they were ever released, simply from seeing him tear down tiny venues over and over again; his debut single, a collaboration with DJ Jimi called “Bounce for the Juvenile,” was exhibit A.

Before Cash Money, Juve—on wax, at least—wasn’t the unmistakable presence he would become. But when he linked with Mannie, the evolution came rapidly. The pair had been orbiting one another for a while, but operating in slightly different circles. They finally, officially, met at a bus stop, where Mannie asked Juve to rap. He did: song after song after song. The contract came through almost immediately. By the end of 1997, Mannie had produced (and Cash Money had issued) two albums with Juvenile in a starring role, a solo record called Solja Rags and Get It How U Live!!, an album by the Hot Boys, Cash Money’s supergroup that paired Juve with B.G., Turk, and a young rapper named Lil Wayne. Juve had just turned 22 when that first Hot Boys album dropped, but he was the oldest member of the group—barely out of his adolescence but forced into a grizzled, world-weary role.

You could hear it in his voice. Starting on Solja Rags, Juve became one of the most distinctive rappers imaginable, his delivery evoking the blues but nimble enough to navigate whatever stuttering, gridless drums Mannie used to challenge him. When he was cursing Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, he sounded as if he could be 18 or 58, smirking on a porch somewhere.

By the beginning of ’98, Cash Money and its artists were accruing power throughout Louisiana and the rest of the South. The title track from Juve’s album had been a local hit. B.G.’s album sold 25,000 copies; the Hot Boys tripled that. In March, Baby and Slim signed that infamous distribution deal with Universal, the terms of which quickly took on the qualities of myth: a three-year contract with a $2 million advance annually, a $1.5 million credit on each of up to six albums each year, and an 80/20 profit split in favor of Cash Money. The deal had largely been centered on the Big Tymers—Mannie’s collaboration with Baby—but as soon as the ink was dry, Mannie insisted that Universal push Juvenile to the foreground.

Cash Money was then operating like a factory: Mannie would cook up beat after beat and hook after hook, and artists would be in various studio rooms writing, trying out ideas, with all efforts dedicated to whoever’s album was next on the docket. But as Juvenile became the label’s flagship artist, and as everyone’s focus turned to forging his new album, the process changed in two key ways. For one, the raps often came before the music. There are moments on 400 Degreez when Juve stops a verse at 14 bars or runs past the usual 16. Juve hadn’t learned, or wasn’t bothering to count out his bars; he would simply tell Mannie what and how he was going to rap, then let the producer build a beat around him. As Mannie recalled in 2014, “400 Degreez was already wrote, I just had to put music to it.”

The second divergence from Mannie’s usual process is that, unlike the other rappers on the label, Juve would bring his own hooks to the songs rather than let them be mapped out by the producer. As specific and streetwise as he was, those years winning over NOLA crowds honed his sense for how to manipulate a room. That knack for pop makes the album jell; it lets him float through songs like “Ghetto Children” and stuff melodies into the verses on “Gone Ride With Me” and “Follow Me Now.” (The latter song, in particular, is an absolute joy; the way he opens with a syncopated “I want me a—mil/To see just how it—feel” throws your shoulders into motion immediately.) Juve had long been toying with these parts of his toolkit, but on 400 Degreez he grew into a different rapper entirely, one more in command of his skillset and with a more innate feel for where each song could take him, musically. On the intro, Mannie says this is the new record from “the dude that brung you ‘Put up your “Solja Rag,”’ referencing that lighter, thinner proto-“Ha” from the year before. But Juve wasn’t the same dude—he was a little older, a little better in tune with the bounce.

Which is good, because when Juve forgets to smile, 400 Degreez can turn incredibly grim. It’s an album about what it’s like to be baptized in fire and the ways you need to be resourceful in order to survive—not to escape Hollywood shootouts, but to grit your teeth and keep creditors off your back, to keep from getting carjacked by kids who are bored and lashing out. On “Ghetto Children,” Juve raps: “I got bills to pay/I can’t be playing with you jokers.” On “Run for It,” Wayne is itching to jump out of trees and attack his enemies, but Juve writes about how he’d rather see the violence on TV. He’s seen and done enough to know how scarring it’s all been but can’t sit back and reflect without worrying. On “Gone Ride With Me,” the goal isn’t a big-body Benz, it’s rent money.

That paranoia—about kids who are ready to knock him off, about cops, about acts of God—seeps into the album’s crevices. Juve’s songwriting is, at its resting state, playful, buoyant, full of asides and knowing advice; he is in control. So when things seem out of his grasp (see his opening verse on “Off Top”), the record becomes not just frantic, but desperate, even hopeless. This feeling comes only in brief spurts, but compared to the poise that Juve usually trafficks in, it rattles the calm. “Ha” aside, Juve is most captivating when he’s at his most urgent, like on the title track: “You see me? I eat, sleep, shit, and talk rap/You seen that ’98 Mercedes on TV? I bought that/I had some felony charges—I fought that/Been sent to no return but still was brought back.” And even on “Ha,” the chorus casts the song as something more existential: “You know what it is/To make nothing outta something.”

And sometimes the joy and id and Gothic fear all blur into one. Near the end of the sessions for 400 Degreez, Mannie and Juve got the idea to resurrect one of those songs that had been a reliable concert staple in New Orleans, but had never been properly recorded, one that Juve had been rapping to the “Paid in Full” loop. The title might not have been stylized yet, but it was the early skeleton of what would eventually become “Back That Azz Up.”

That skeleton nearly shared its name with DJ Jubilee’s Jackson 5-sampling hit from the same period in 2003, Jubilee would sue Juvenile, Cash Money, and Universal, and lose. But Mannie sensed that Juve’s version was the one. It just needed the right beat. “[I knew] if we put 808 drums under this with the bounce, we got the hood,” the producer told Complex in 2012. But “we got to get white America too, how do we do that?”

The answer was strings. In the video, two men emerge from the fog like specters, one in a wheelchair, both slinging violins. That’s the song’s slow, morbid intro, a call for bodies to report to the dancefloor not just from the bar or the booths, but from beyond the grave. The men disappear and are replaced by Juve, in a white tee, who leans toward the camera and fires one of the most famous warning shots in all of rap’s history: “Cash Money Records taking over for the nine-nine and the two-thousand.” Then the 808s.

That video became inescapable on MTV. It served, along with “Ha,” B.G.’s “Bling Bling,” Wayne’s “Tha Block Is Hot,” and the Hot Boys’ “I Need a Hot Girl,” as the takeover. Despite being a last-minute addition to the album, “Azz” in particular distilled the label’s vision into a single song. It’s a rave in a haunted mansion: the song’s bass (and baseness) warp and contort its ornate flourishes. It’s the maximalist endpoint of that bounce-rap fusion. Wayne’s ad-libs-on-steroids cameo earmarks him as an obvious future star. And Juvenile raps like getting his partner to bend over is a matter of life and death, which it very obviously is.

400 Degreez is too idiosyncratic to have sprung from the minds of anyone but Juve and Mannie, but they didn’t seal themselves off from the rest of Cash Money. Nearly half the album’s songs feature some combination of the Hot Boys. One of the more interesting payoffs of this is that you get to catch the other three members at various stages in their development: that “Run for It” verse is jarring for how clearly Wayne patterned his flow after Juve’s, but B.G., who wrestles the formless posse cut “U.P.T.” into his own hands, is already a practiced star.

The best group song—and the album’s single greatest moment outside of those tentpole singles—is the anxious, defiant, unbelievably goofy “Flossin’ Season.” B.G. flashes a watch that you can see from a block away; Wayne sounds fully formed for once. Two different men compare their stunting to Evel Knievel; you can practically hear Baby arguing with an auto-body shop about how many PlayStations can realistically fit inside a Hummer. But it’s the principals who make the song transcend. Mannie’s beat and the urgency in Juve’s voice give “Flossin’ Season” its relentless forward motion—the quality that makes a song about watches sound like a matter of family honor. When Juve can’t make it to the bar without being hit on, it seems like the “Odyssey”; Mannie brags, in order, that he has: a burgundy jet, cities named after him; a big dick, a million dollars, and a Nissan Pathfinder; a half a mil riding on the Lakers; a Lexus that comes out in two years (it’s parked by the projects) and a motorcycle that comes out in 12 (it has the Batman fins); and a ring that Liberace can’t afford. Come over here and give a millionaire a hug.

There are traces of Universal’s handwringing, and signs that the label’s priorities got crossed during production. Words like “homicide” and “pistol” are occasionally censored, but they left in embarrassing errors: in the liner notes and on the CD itself, Mannie Fresh is credited as “Manny” Fresh. Fortunately, as on previous Cash Money releases, the art was handled by the legendarily gaudy Houston design firm Pen & Pixel. There’s Juvenile: propped up among the flames like Frankenstein’s monster. There are models pacing through a library. The “z” in Degreez has two vertical lines through it, as in “$.” But the album was a massive commercial success. It reached No. 9 on the Billboard 200—peaking in September 1999, almost a year after its release, due to the sustained strength of “Back That Azz Up”—and, in 2011, was certified quadruple platinum.

On a less quantifiable level, it helped Southern rap pierce the mainstream. It was the tip of the spear that preceded the region’s rule over the 2000s and 2010s. (Of course, that shine would be mostly reserved for Atlanta; even when Cash Money’s last, best hope finally made it, Lil Wayne fled his ravaged New Orleans for Miami.) JAY-Z, who was red hot following that year’s Vol 2: Hard Knock Life, tried to grapple with “Ha” on one of its two remixes, but despite being near his technical peak, he couldn’t find the right bounce to really sell his verse. In a way, that foreshadowed the next decade and a half for New York: trying to keep up with the South, but unable to match its first step.

But for Juve himself, things were never this good again. A few years later, he left Cash Money, claiming—as many artists have since—that Baby and Slim weren’t paying him anything near what he was owed. Both B.G. and Turk were sentenced to long terms in prison. Wayne, perhaps improbably, became the best rapper on the planet before realizing that he, too, was getting robbed. Mannie left the label. In 2005, Juve’s home was destroyed by Katrina; in 2008, his 4-year-old daughter and his daughter’s mother were murdered. Even his biggest commercial success was blackened by death: In 2004, a year before the hurricane, “Slow Motion” got Cash Money its first No. 1 hit in part because the song became a de facto tribute for Soulja Slim, who was murdered the day before Thanksgiving 2003 in the front yard of the house he bought for his mother.

Rap moves so fast that it can be difficult to pin down a new style’s influences beyond its most immediate predecessors. But what Juvenile and Mannie Fresh were doing in 1998 is part of the DNA for much of modern hip-hop, from the way Juve would bake melodies into his verses to the way Mannie blueprinted so much of our current sample-free production. 400 Degreez looms large over the genre, the way Juve’s sunglassed face lurks above the burning blocks on the album cover. It’s a strange, inimitable collage, full of fear and fire, unmistakably New Orleans and unrelentingly inventive.

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