Championship Crunk: On Duke Deuce’s Memphis Massacre 2

Dean Van Nguyen goes in on the Memphis artist bringing crunk back.
By    March 31, 2020

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Dean Van Nguyen is gonna jump in the lab with Joe Exotic as soon as he gets out.

Did Nas kill crunk? The abridged history of rap states that Hip Hop Is Dead was released at the genre’s lowest nadir, with Escobar rolling out the guillotine for those he perceived as pushing an anti-lyrical, lowest common denominator music that threatened to destroy the culture from within. In 2006, it wasn’t a stretch to assume Lil Jon was at the top of his hit list. Maybe crunk did provide empty calories but it was wild, it was visceral—it was such a good time that Nas himself couldn’t resist jumping on Lil Jon’s “Grand Finale,” the closing track of 2004 album Crunk Juice. But as crunk filtered into trap and the punishing sounds of Lex Luger, the cult of its most famous originator couldn’t hold. When Dave Chappelle made short work of Lil Jon in a series of comedy skits, you knew it was over.

Skip forward a decade-and-a-half to Duke Deuce, a spiritual medium who believes crunk can be resurrected from the crypt. Released last year, “Crunk Ain’t Dead” saw the Memphis rapper hijack an old DJ Paul & Juicy J beat first heard on Project Pat’s “If You Ain’t from My Hood.” The video sees Deuce sprawled out unconscious on the studio floor. As the beat builds momentum, CPR is administered to the stricken star. “Fuel” is poured down his throat via a purple gas can. Suddenly, Deuce lives, rising from the cold floor to wild out with his crew on a neck-snapping number that bears all the characteristics of a great crunk single: repetitive hooks, catchy key riffs, high-energy flows. But at less than two-minutes long, “Crunk Ain’t Dead” was too thin, too fleeting, to be much more than a clipped summarization of a bygone subgenre.

On latest tape Memphis Massacre 2, Deuce attempts to fix that oversight. The viral impact of “Crunk Ain’t Dead” ostensibly gave him freedom to put together a dream team on the remix, and so Juicy J, Project Pat and, sure enough, Lil Jon are drafted to flesh the song out. The now-49-year-old Jon deletes the last decade-and-a-half as he sprinkles those iconic throaty yelps throughout the track. Juicy J is the walking hook he’s always been. Pat strangely decides to rap in an overly complex double-time flow ill-suited to the raw simplicity of the music, while Deuce opts not to record a new verse, instead placing old rhymes on this new version. The remix retains all the adrenaline and immediacy of the original, but there’s a mild sense here of a wasted opportunity.

Nevermind, though. “Crunk Ain’t Dead” has gifted Deuce a platform and he resists the temptation to load Memphis Massacre with crunk nostalgia. Instead, the tape everything at once: the creeping pimp-funk of “Fat Mac”; the Hustle & Flow hardcore of “Feel Like It”; the horror movie keys and immersive bass of “BHZ”; the trap blues of “Trap Blues.” Even “Crunk Ain’t Dead Mob”, which features guest spots from Lil Thad and Lil Yachty, bears little resemblance to the song that almost shares its name, retaining the short bars and chanting hooks of crunk but creating something new by stripping the beat down to its leanest.

Through these Southern comforts, Deuce is an effective tour guide. When he unleashes his animated, hook-heavy vocal style, he casts himself as the natural successor to Three 6 Mafia and 8Ball & MJG. But Memphis Massacre 2 does nothing if not showcase Deuce’s versatility. On “Duke Flow” he tunes his flow to a more jagged sound, rattling out daft but compelling bars like “Fee-fi-fo-fum, big n***a with a drum.” On closer “Big Dog,” Deuce gets soulful. Over mournful strings, he documents his hardships with the sly soulfulness of a blues singer. Signing off with an emotional high point, Deuce puts the button on a set that trades in more valuable currencies than simple nostalgia.

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