As late as a year ago, Lil Jon was still, to casual music fans, merely Robin Hood's sidekick. That changed for good in the wake of Usher's across-the-board No. 1 hit "Yeah!" Suddenly, even soccer moms were scanning the glut of "What Is Crunk?" stories written primarily to introduce the world to the 21st-century Lil Jon, who now rules the high-energy hip-hop offshoot he helped create.
The dreadlocked, gold-toothed Atlanta producer and MC has overseen and/or appeared on so many releases over the past few years that his discography has Library of Congress-style heft. Everyone from thugged-out Southerners like Trick Daddy to thugged-out Northerners like Mobb Deep to East Bay icon Too $hort to pop tarts like Brooke Valentine have sought Jon for a dose of crunk cred, and it's difficult to imagine that he's turned anyone down -- which makes trying to pick Lil Jon's ten best tracks a nearly impossible task. But as the man himself once advised, you can't be scared to represent yo' shit.
1. "Bia Bia," Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz (2001) -- Lil Jon first got himself (and crunk) on the map in 1997 with the single "Who U Wit?," but despite its gang-rapped vocals and budding belligerence, that song today sounds more like the 2 Live Crew, a pale forerunner of what was to come. The story really starts with "Bia Bia," which not only presented Jon's first guest-star extravaganza (Ludacris, Too $hort, Chyna White), but also most of the elements that have come to define the genre. The song's deliberate beat -- its plodding bass-and-snare rhythm ramped up by the anxiously twitching hi-hat -- its simplistic but catchy synth figure, and the out-of-control craziness of the shouted-out chants combine to make this threat to stop actin' like a bia (i.e., "biatch") the first classic crunk hit.
2. "Quit Hatin'," Too $hort (2002) -- Nearly forgotten in Lil Jon's crunkography is this collaboration with Bay Area veteran Too $hort, a natural partner because of the similarities between Too $hort's favored booty music and Jon's emerging sound. Very reminiscent of "Bia Bia," except the synth and the snarling rhymes are even more upfront, "Quit Hatin'" gave Too $hort's catalogue of same-sounding pieces a welcome shot of Southern skeet.
3. "Get Low," Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz (2002) -- Before he conclusively conquered America with "Yeah!," Lil Jon softened up the masses with this massively successful collaboration with homies the Ying Yang Twins. It's the X-rated version of Usher's big hit, rawer musically and lyrically; Jon cheers on girls who get naked for a living and reminds one young lady who dares to ask for a handout, Bitch, I ain't even seen you dance.
4. "Damn!," Youngbloodz (2002) --Another dry run for "Yeah!" and another Lil Jon hit that flew under the mainstream radar. This ATL duo proudly declared its taste for malt liquor instead of Cris (highlighting the blue-collar roots crunk shares with heavy metal and punk) and threw loud lyrical 'bows all over an even more synth-happy refinement of Jon's failsafe crunk formula.
5. "Quick to Back Down," Bravehearts (2003) -- Crunk coupled with hardcore New York hip-hop seemed like an oil-and-water pairing before Jon's surprise collaboration with the Bravehearts. This gathering storm cloud of a beat perfectly matched the menace radiated by Jungle and Wiz, and its chimes rang in the more ominous, metallic crunk from Jon that would follow.
6. "Yeah!," Usher (2004) -- You loved it, then you hated it, and now you've heard it so many times it no longer even registers. But repetition hasn't changed the brilliance of this pairing, which showed Jon could clean up crunk for the charts without sacrificing any of its urgency. The secret of this song's success, in its pairing of Jon's most maddeningly catchy synth riff with Usher's horniest vocal, is that it merely implies the sexual scenarios crunk usually spells out (at least until Ludacris' cameo).
7. "Head Bussa," Lil Scrappy/"Neva Eva," Trilville (2004) -- Neither of these teenage acts, protégés of Lil Jon, are distinctive. But for a dose of the pure, in-your-face energy that helps redeem this shortcoming, you can't go wrong with either of these manic tracks, which share an almost identical drum pattern and snotty attitude.
8. "Goodies," Ciara (2004) -- Whether the world will ever hear from Ciara again is a valid question, but there's no denying the virtues of last summer's surprise smash. A poppier, more clever knockoff of "Yeah!" (right down to the oscillating synth hook), "Goodies" started out as a superior answer to Petey Pablo's "Freek-a-Leek" (another Jon production) before taking on a life of its own. Any girl could've sung this never-gonna-get-it anthem, but the so-called "crunk-and-B" backing is purely Jon's innovation.
9. "Let's Go," Trick Daddy (2004) -- Lil Jon has frequently furthered the suggestion that crunk is the black punk rock by using sampled guitars to rough up his cuts. "Let's Go," with its riffs swiped from Ozzy's "Crazy Train," makes it crunchingly clear that crunk is actually the black heavy metal instead.
10. "Stop F***in' with Me," Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz (2004) -- Capping an incredibly prolific year, Lil Jon's Crunk Juice contained several tracks that made the crunk/metal connection explicit. This pummeling, self-explanatory tune, which samples Slayer and features an assist from Rick Rubin himself, was a glorious example of the cross-pollination. Bang your head, as you wonder: Can Spandex, umlauts, and codpieces be far behind?
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