It's hard out here for Southern hip-hop's '90s pioneers. If your name isn't Scarface or Andre 3000, you'll probably never be given your proper respect by the genre's gatekeepers and historians. And while there are always new dirty south stars who'll readily pay homage to your influence, they'll also inevitably enjoy greater mainstream success than you ever did. But many of those cult heroes and regional fixtures have enjoyed persistent longevity and loyal fanbases. And two such acts, Goodie Mob and Juicy J, released high profile new albums that had the potential to bolster their respective legacies last week. Goodie Mob, an Atlanta quartet from the storied Dungeon Family collective, never enjoyed the same kind of success as their friends in Outkast, and began to splinter after releasing three albums in the 1990s. Their new album,
Age Against The Machine
, is their first all together since Cee-Lo Green began focusing on singing more than rapping, and became an unlikely crossover star thanks to massive pop hits like "Fuck You" and Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." Juicy J's Stay Trippy is his first major label solo project, after over a dozen albums, most of them as Three 6 Mafia, with longtime collaborator DJ Paul. These two albums are vastly different, but the starkest contrast is that Juicy J has an easier time summoning the sound and spirit of his trailblazing early work by himself than Goodie Mob does with the whole crew back together. A Goodie Mob reunion album has been in the works since 2007, but no new music surfaced from the group until 2012. That single, "Fight To Win," was premiered on
, the NBC singing competition co-starring Cee-Lo, and was everything longtime Goodie Mob fans had feared: a bombastic, melodic pop rap anthem that relegated Khujo, T-Mo and Big Gipp to sidemen. So the best thing about
Age Against The Machine
is that "Fight To Win" is nowhere on it, nor is anything on the album remotely as embarrassing. But the album still sounds like a rocky compromise between groupmates who've gone in vastly different musical directions since parting company. Instead of evoking the Mob's '90s work, or even trying to sound up to date,
sounds like it's playing catch-up with the eclectic futurism of Stankonia-period Outkast. That occasionally works well, particularly on the new single, "Special Education" which features a Janelle Monae hook, a skronky sci-fi beat, and a ferocious standout verse from Khujo. Most of the other tracks in that vein feel charmless and overcooked, however. Goodie Mob comes out swinging against mainstream hip-hop early on in the album with "State of the Art (Radio Killa)." But the album rarely captures the kind of down-to-earth humanity that made "Cell Therapy" a minor radio hit in 1995, and often trades more heavily on Cee-Lo's charismatic and melodic delivery than it did back then. Throughout
Age Against The Machine
, Cee-Lo displays a smug confidence in the appeal of his voice and his mannered wordplay that brings to mind other overexposed 2013 superstars like, say, Lil Wayne. "This particular song right here is dedicated to the black woman," Cee-Lo gently intoned in the opening of the 1998 song "Beautiful Skin." On the 2013 track "Amy," he gleefully screeches a lyric co-written by Bruno Mars about "my very first white girl."
Age Against The Machine
is by no means a disaster, and a mid-album run of smart, hard-knocking songs like "Kolors" and the T.I. collaboration "Pinstripes" hints at the superior Goodie Mob comeback album that could have been. But on the whole, the album feels like an unsuccessful gamble that will be forgotten as quickly as
One Monkey Don't Stop No Show
, the album the group released without Cee-Lo in 2004. "Silence…The New Hate," a brief interlude on the new album in which crickets chirp gently in the background, sums up the reunited Goodie Mob's fate; last week, the group canceled all but one of their upcoming tour dates in support of the album, after some sparsely attended performances. A few years ago, Memphis's Three 6 Mafia were having their own identify crisis. The one-two punch their biggest radio hit, "Stay Fly," and the surprising 2006 Oscar win for their musical contributions to the film
Hustle & Flow
made the group more famous than ever. But after a decade of faithfully mining the same dark, aggressive sound, they began bending over backwards to retain that crossover success with a reality show on MTV and garishly ill-fitting singles like "Lolli Lolli (Pop That Body)" and the Tiesto collaboration "Feel It." After effectively alienating the fanbase they'd been building for over a decade, the group took an extended break, with DJ Paul retreating to self-produce independent albums, and Juicy J hitting the mixtape circuit with young hitmakers like Lex Luger.
Juicy J's reinvention as a prolific mixtape rapper was a runaway success, not only reminding listeners how much the latest wave of dark, aggressive strip club rap owes to Three 6 but establishing his ability to make hits outside the group with "Bandz A Make Her Dance," one of hip-hop radio's biggest songs of 2012. But Stay Trippy took a year to arrive after that song broke big, with two big name executive producers signing on: Wiz Khalifa, the Pittsburgh rapper who made many dispiriting concessions to the mainstream in his transition from mixtape favorite to national star, and Dr. Luke, the pop impresario responsible for hits by Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson. That pedigree could've derailed Stay Trippy as a crossover attempt as ill-conceived as "Lolli Lolli (Pop That Body)," but somehow it didn't. This is a Juicy J album, through and through. Much of the album is produced by popular young Southern producers like Mike WiLL Made It, Lex Luger and Young Chop, all of whom were literally in diapers when Juicy J began making records in the early '90s. Occasionally the Juiceman still gets behind the boards, and "Money A Do It" features a hard snare drum slap and abrupt mid-song tempo change reminiscent of classic Hypnotize Minds cuts like "Triple Six Clubhouse." Dr. Luke only produces a couple tracks, neither of which leans too conspicuously toward Top 40 radio, and even the appearance of a bona fide pop star, Justin Timberlake, on "The Woods," doesn't stick out too much; Timberlake, after all, is from Tennessee, and has collaborated with Three 6 before. Juicy J seemed the most out of his element on the advance single "One of Those Nights," featuring shrill Canadian singer The Weeknd, but that song ended up being left off the album. Instead, a less bothersome Weeknd sample turns up on "Smokin' Rollin'." Guest verses by Wale, Big Sean and, yes, a rapping Chris Brown may not add much to the album, but they never substantially change the mood or steal the spotlight from Juicy J. It might sound like Juicy J is trying too hard to adapt to the times, but the truth is that he's simply getting comfortable in a mainstream rap climate that he's been a major influence on. Even when Three 6 Mafia were relatively underground phenomenon, there was still a sense that they had crude, shrewd commercial instincts, and would chase whatever idea seemed like a hit (resulting in canny, zeitgeist-grabbing singles like "2-Way Freak" and "Ridin' Spinners"). So Stay Trippy winds up as something of a triumph, one of the year's most thoroughly enjoyable major label albums, while Goodie Mob were trying to please so many different audiences, some of them imaginary, that they ended up making nobody happy.