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.
Charles Thaxton is a writer in Somerville, Mass., whose reviews and criticism have appeared in The New Inquiry, Full Stop and WBUR.org.
By Leon Neyfakh
Melville. 170 pp. Paperback; $16.95