It’s OK if you’ve never heard of Juiceboxxx. Almost nobody has. He belongs to music’s murky underground, that permanent class of aspirants who wander from DIY space to grungy bar, playing to small crowds, crashing on couches. From this stratum, a few catch a spark or the right blogger’s fancy, and luck or grind their way to the big time. Most fade away. Juiceboxxx, a white rapper from Milwaukee in his late 20s, persists. His sound is out of fashion, he’s permanently broke, but he carries on.
Leon Neyfakh has known Juiceboxxx since their teens, and “The Next Next Level,’’ his slim and elegant essay, uses their friendship to illuminate a perennial question: What makes an artist? In high school in the Chicago suburbs, Neyfakh and his pals divided the world into “geniuses” and “critics,” hoping they might turn out to be the former. When Juiceboxxx — a roiling, charismatic mess — crashed into their lives, Neyfakh recognized the genuine article.
Their paths soon diverged: Neyfakh went to Harvard, became a journalist — including at the Globe and now Slate — married, and settled in New York. But they never completely lost touch. So when Juiceboxxx, who’s spent years living hand to mouth and city to city, posting videos on YouTube, landing the occasional big opening-act gig only to see opportunity slip away, turns up in New York and suggests they “link,” Neyfakh decides to write about him.
The interviews that ensue carry the book for stretches, but more than a profile of a hyper-niche artist, “The Next Next Level’’ is the quasi-memoir of a friendship. In exploring how Juiceboxxx, who is increasingly racked by doubt yet stubborn in his path, stakes his place in the world, Neyfakh is coming to terms with his own.
This is a fast read, which suits its frame: Beyond Juiceboxxx and the author, other characters are marginal; the material results from Neyfakh’s conversations with Juiceboxxx or his own musings and memories. The focus makes it, almost by force, very white and male in ways that Neyfakh does not do much to situate or challenge. It’s more of an interior piece; imagine it adapted as a stage play.
It’s also keenly, wryly observed. When Neyfakh reconnects with Juiceboxxx, “I ask him what he’s up to in New York, which he answers with one word that underscores to me just how different his life is from mine: ‘Subletting.’ ” Sometime later, Juiceboxxx invites Neyfakh to some Brooklyn house party that he’s DJ-ing, and the episode is a well-drawn vignette of nocturnal randomness and futility.
At one point, Neyfakh wishes he could join Juiceboxxx on the road — “[M]y reportorial instinct is that I should go on the entire tour, the way William Miller does in ‘Almost Famous’ ” — and one wishes he had, so well does he spin these stories. Instead, he picks at length at the awkwardness that sits between him and Juiceboxxx: fan and idol, writer and artist, career man and renegade. For each key reflection that moves the story ahead — “[It] occurs to me, for the first time ever, that he might not like being thought of as a wild animal” — others feel like confession for its own sake, a catalog of cringes that’s very Brooklyn in its earnestness and low stakes.
The star of this show remains Juiceboxxx. If the reader goes online, hears a few songs, watches some videos of this gawky white guy rapping with genuine skill as he wanders America’s anonymous streets (“Walking in Milwaukee” is a good sample), the charm bursts through. He’s random, without discernible politics or cultural edge, but he’s benign and unfeigned. You can’t help but root for him.
Neyfakh wonders whether Juiceboxxx wants to quit: “[C]ould it be, I wonder, that while everyone else on the planet moves to New York to chase their dream, Juiceboxxx had come to bury his?” He helps Juiceboxxx get a full-time job and promptly worries that by so doing, he is accelerating his friend’s creative demise. By the end, we are reassured that Juiceboxxx is far from done. Neyfakh’s enjoyable if imperfect book will only add to his legend.
THE NEXT NEXT LEVEL: A Story of Rap, Friendship, and Almost Giving Up
By Leon Neyfakh
Melville House, 170 pp., paperback, $16.95
Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.