Juvenile’s 400 Degreez encapsulated Cash Money’s first wave of inventiveness
Original release date: 3 November, 1998
Label: Cash Money/Universal
As it turned out, 400 Degreez is the temperature at which Southern rap percolates. Place Juvenile in the roaster for 72 scintillating minutes, sauté the pop ‘n’ click patterns of Mannie Fresh, add in the spices of Big Tymers and Juve’s fellow Hot Boyz, allow Bryan “Baby” Williams and Ronald “Slim” Williams to stir the pit, and voilà – or as a teenage Lil Wayne spits at the end of Juve’s Back That Azz Up video, “wobble-dee, wobble-dee” – Cash Money Records plates up a New Orleans gumbo fit for a king. Bon Appetit.
Dropped in the spring of 1998, Juvenile’s third album crystallised the Cash Money sound and established the then-23-year-old as its first star. It doesn’t take a genius to see why Baby – who’d become better known as Birdman, Wayne’s father figure turned business nemesis – was willing to throw the dice on the man born Terius Gray. If confidence can be injected into the blood then Juve hit a double dose. The album showcases an impossibly fantastic rapper – a behemoth with an elastic voice capable of bending his larynx in insane ways. Juve’s rapping can be dense and complex, forceful with finesse, infinitely listenable. He spits like a man who never met a consonant he trusted but with the control of a Formula One driver hitting corners at speed.
400 Degreez is as musical as it is ferocious. Cash Money’s in-house producer Mannie Fresh handles the beats from front-to-back, his New Orleans bounce orchestration shuffling through his tightly packed soundscapes. Even when Fresh’s instrumentals feel lean and inexpensive – you can practically hear his fingertips pop off the electronic drum pads – they never sound weak. This future-cop sound was different to the more bluesy beats of Houston label Rap-A-Lot or the Southern-meets-West-Coast fusion sound of fellow New Orleans outfit No Limit. And despite Mannie helming every track, 400 Degreez never repeats itself. Examine the slap bass and peppy guitar stabs of Ghetto Children or the bossanova bounce of Flossin’ Season. Mannie gives Juvenile enough fresh looks.
Mocked up by the artists at Pen & Pixel, the cover is gloriously brash and tasteless. (It’s no surprise that when Louis Theroux went on his fish-out-of-water exploration of southern hip-hop, it was the Houston design firm he hired to create his cover.) Yet underneath the artwork, Juve brings a rich specificity to his writing, building his Magnolia Housing Projects home brick by brick. Over a beat that could almost be an alternate universe Bond theme, the title track finds him pondering the importance of reputation (“How I’ma be runnin’ with these killas and backin’ down/ How I’ma look in front of my people, like a clown”). Nothing distils Juvenile’s sparkle, though, like Ha. It might the most vicious dressing down of a fake hustler ever (“You gotta go to court ha/ You got served a subpoena for child support ha”).
Despite entering the US Billboard top 10 and enjoying plenty of MTV exposure, the album has become something of an oddity. Strangely, Apple Music and Spotify are home to only the clean version. Yet its legacy is cast in stone. Juvenile may have been Cash Money’s first flagship artist but Lil Wayne, whose youthful voice can be heard on a few tracks, became the label’s living legend.
Imagining Wayne hitting the highest peaks of rap stardom a decade later without Juve’s influence is impossible. After his elder departed Cash Money, Wayne, forever tethered to Juvenile as part of the label’s supergroup The Hot Boyz, asserted his allegiance to Baby and co by calling his third album 500 Degreez – supposedly 100 hotter than Juve’s classic. Equally, it’s crazy to imagine rappers like T.I. and Young Jeezy swaggering out of the South in the new century without Juve’s path-finding explorations. The region would hit new heights of mainstream acceptance but Juvenile never quite got to dine on that success.
“Imagining [Lil] Wayne hitting the highest peaks of rap stardom a decade later without Juve’s influence is impossible”
400 Degreez proved to be the peak of the rapper’s powers. His departure from Cash Money came amid reports that the money wasn’t right (something that would become an oft-heard story) and he never quite found the correct chemistry anywhere else. 600 Degreez has been touted but never materialised. But we’ll always have the original – a fearless declaration of Southern superiority that preluded the region’s irresistible rise, the encapsulation of an influential label’s first wave of inventiveness, and a historic document of late 90s New Orleans living.