Lil Jon remains crunk to death

Despite the tanking of his new LP, he pledges not to abandon crunk

At VH1's Dirty South-focused Hip Hop Honors show in early June, Lil Jon was everywhere, speaking Southern slang with Paul Wall and performing "Get Low" with Ying Yang Twins. Everybody skeet-skeet-skeeted like it was 2003 again, making one nostalgic for the crunk era and Jon's flailing dreadlocks and sloshing pimp goblet. The event should have served as great publicity for his long-delayed new album, Crunk Rock, which was released the next day. But the work peaked at No. 49 on Billboard 200 and sold less than 9,000 copies its first week, an abysmal failure even during a harsh climate for the industry.

Then again, the fact that Crunk Rock even saw the light of day was impressive. Jon's last LP with the East Side Boyz, the double-platinum Crunk Juice, came out in freaking 2004. A few years later his label home TVT Records imploded. He moved to Universal Republic and revamped the CD, recording part of it in Atlanta and part in Los Angeles, where he lives part time now because his son, Slade Smith, wants to be an actor and model. (Okaayyyy!)

Crunk Rock diverges from Jon's famous minimalist formula, which used to consist of little more than 808 drums, hissing hi-hats, rave-inspired synths, and chants. "People love to chant shit," he explains to me. There are still call-and-response numbers here, but there's also denser, more complex production, as well as guests like Waka Flocka Flame and Soulja Boy, who are more melodic than crunk. Garnering the most attention has been "Shots," featuring LMFAO, the insufferable electro-rap duo composed of Berry Gordy's son and nephew. That track features Jon as the inebriated, fun-loving maniac we once knew and loved. But "Shots" is über-grating, contrived, and overproduced, lacking the raw, manic energy that informs his best tracks, like "I Don't Give a Fuck."

Jon blames the album's failings, in part, on the label move. "You can't start on the top when you go somewhere new, you have to learn the system, you have to learn how people operate," he says in his famous disorienting, articulate diction. But in a business where kids often hit big before receiving their ASCAP cards in the mail, this excuse rings somewhat false. Instead, one wonders if the crunk movement simply has no life left.

It certainly has fallen out of fashion in recent years, but not because anyone was calling for its head, like many were with snap music and the "whisper" sound. See, Jon was crunk's ringleader, either appearing on or producing the bulk of the movement's big hits, and it lost steam largely because he was relatively silent for six years. The problem with Crunk Rock is that it's not crunk enough. Tracks, including "Like a Stripper" and "Shots," sound more like bass, the booty-shaking strain that emerged from Miami in the '80s. Jon, in fact, was a So So Def A&R for bass artists early in his career, and Crunk Rock tracks like "Pop Dat Pu$$y" and "Ride Da D" seem directly cribbed from bass pioneer Luke Campbell.

In any case, if Jon is bummed about his album tanking, he doesn't let on, contending that he remains proud of the work. "People hit me every day on Facebook and Twitter, they're loving it, and that's good enough for me," he says.

He's still in demand as a touring DJ, and has some TV projects in the works. But he insists he won't abandon crunk anytime soon — although he may stop featuring the word in his album titles — proudly noting that folks like lily-white pop star Ke$ha employ it in their vernacular. "I'm never going to stop using the term, because that's a term I grew up with, and it still applies to everything," Jon says. "Crunk music is a great release of tension. It lets you lose your mind."

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