March 21, 2017

juelz

Dean Van Nguyen knows y’all funny, but he’s bonkers.

Were you done with Juelz Santana? It’s been over a decade since the quirky Dipset lieutenant was ostensibly primed to follow Cam’ron as the clique’s next break out star before sinking under the weight of poor reviews, a growing rap sheet, label bullshit, and Cam’s own shrinking visibility. But here we are in 2017 and Juelz seems determined to make the latter half of his 30s his best era yet. We’re talking a comeback less likely than the Music City Miracle here.

Santana’s latest two loosies spill all over the stylistic map. “D-Up” unites noughties New York with new-age Georgia. Juelz’s one-time fellow Diplomat Jim Jones might have been invited to the party, but this is essentially a Migos song. Producer Southside’s rumbling keys, pop ‘n’ snap drums, and eerie background chants form a beat as comfortable for the group as their Hermes jackets. Offset, Quavo and Takeoff fire their drip-drip flows as easily as Juelz once rapped over accelerated soul samples. Migos blend gaudy high-end art and designer fashion with clean bricks and warm pistols like the first Cuban barman mixed rum and cola.

Credit Santana and Jones for their bravery. Shifting into Migos’s lane is tough, and the pair make things harder on themselves by trying to do so within pass-the-mic tag team verses. Takeoff and Juelz share a stanza, as do Quavo and Jones. But that hot potato levity is hindered by a lack of chemistry and, to my ear, variations in recording quality. Santana’s segment could have been cut on another day, in another state. The sinister sound doesn’t play to his natural strengths, either. Hearing Santana’s whacky expressivity over clattering drums and chipmunk soul was once a real joy. “D-Up” might be his showcase, but Juelz never really imposes himself on it.

It’d be easy to pile on him for this—a veteran New Yorker jumping on a popular regional sound in a new bid for relevance. But it’s a coming together that feels weirdly fitting. Santana’s a guy who saw stardom escape his slippy grip. For Migos, things easily could have gone the same way. Their first album performed disappointingly after the whole “better than The Beatles” punch line grew stale. Culture has seen them regain momentum, while Juelz continues to wait for his turn. If he’s going to be pulled in from purgatory, though, it’s probably not going to be following Migos’ lesson this literally.

“Time Ticking” is a much better fit. On a beat that rides the kind of blaring uptown horns that middle era Jay Z built an empire on, Juelz and fellow Harlemite Dave East delete some 14 years of hip-hop evolution while still sounding fresh and vital. Locked-up rappers Bobby Shmurda and Rowdy Rebel appear on the hook, but this is a track for the streets as Santana and East toast the good times.

Juelz counts his money while name-dropping Barney Rubble. He strikes poses in the video while wearing a ski-mask and calls himself a “Fendi monster.” As a table setter for the next epoch, it gets the job done. Turns out, the answers Santana seeks lie within, not on the spectrum of popular rap sounds. With a Dipset reunion off the scheduled right now, he is free to investigate the limits of his range. Let’s see it happen.