Leon Neyfakh presents an interesting case. Currently a journalist at Slate covering criminal justice, he also profiles rap musicians for The Fader, traveling side by side with Migos and Rae Sremmurd and then filing reports on their status. He shares a small apartment in Brooklyn Heights with his wife, herself a prominent young journalist, and their puppy; the puppy is all black and exceedingly adorable. As he takes pains to emphasize in his strange and compelling book The Next Next Level, he leads a mundane life, characterized by “relative prosperity and a generally comfortable existence.” As a reader of the book, and an acquaintance of its author, it’s hard not to concur with him in his self-assessment, and quite easy to sympathize with his recounting of his failed attempts — buried, thankfully, according to him, in the past — to transcend his (self-described) derivative condition by becoming a musician. Though not quite humble or un-self-obsessed, Neyfakh generally lacks the impulse for self-aggrandizement that is a permanent temptation for the memoirist. Not only his self-descriptions, but his sentences themselves — brisk, plain, and strong — labor to create an effect of ordinary, sober being. It seems evident that his strengths as a journalist have served him well in a more personal genre of writing.
Yet The Next Next Level is not quite a memoir: falling between genres, its typological instability points towards certain tensions in the author’s presentation of the world that have not found as a neat a resolution as he claims. Unstable too, in a different but intimately related way, is the book’s ostensible primary subject, an underground musician raised in the suburbs of Milwaukee who the book refers to by his stage name Juiceboxxx, or Juice for short. Juiceboxxx’s music, a curious melange of hardcore, rap, punk, and classic rock where the relative proportion of the ingredients is in constant flux, is a match for his personality, which, as Neyfakh and their mutual friends note, swiftly fluctuates between euphoria and despondence. From his high school days on Juiceboxxx has led an itinerant life structured around more or less constant touring; he lives and has lived, for the most part, precariously, though not without success. He has toured with Public Enemy, achieved moderate success in Europe with an uncharacteristically danceable single, and commands a small but very devoted fanbase: as he notes to Neyfakh, not without pride, he can play a small venue in any city in America and have thirty fans show up.
It was at one such show in Neyfakh’s Chicago-area home town of Oak Park that he witnessed Juice perform for the first time, in his typically kinetic, confrontational style: at one point he seizes Neyfakh by the face, rapping straight at him from extreme close range. Neyfakh, then a high school student, was thunderstruck: converted on the spot, he attended somewhere close to 20 of Juice’s concerts since and pays close attention, online, to the career of his idol as it hovered on the line between minor and more prominent levels of success. He displays a degree of protectiveness regarding his hero that sometimes seems excessive, bristling whenever Juice and his art are insulted in a near-maternal fashion: at one point, reading a dismissive comment about Juice in an online comments section, Neyfakh tells us that he “wanted to fucking kill” the commenter. The Next Next Level, then, composed in a more or less neutral style yet alternating, not unsmoothly, between its author’s personal memories and reflections, his interactions with an artist regarding whom he cannot be objective, and the external details of the artist’s life, exists in a kind of no man’s land between memoir, journalism, biography, and hagiography. It might be best described as an autobiography not of a person so much as of an aesthetic perspective.
What are the terms of this perspective? Neyfakh is forthright in their exposition. As undergraduates at Harvard University, he and his friends subscribed to a simple, stark dichotomy. On the one hand, there were geniuses; on the other, critics. Whereas geniuses were singular, original, confident, and un-self-conscious, the critics existed only to react to the geniuses: they masked their own essential banality with an excess of hard work and suffered from a degree of self-scrutiny that could be fairly described as pathological. The two categories are not merely opposed to one another. They are incommensurable. And yet the author sought, up to and including his college years, a path across the chasm: “I spent much of my adolescence wishing I could stop feeling like a ‘critic’ and discover a hidden ‘genius’ under all my dull neuroses. I maintained this hope for years, and coveted a way of being natural and self-contained that seemed to animate everyone I thought was cool.” The last word, here as elsewhere in the book, is key: though Neyfakh and his companions come to use the words genius and critic in the Ivy League, the structure of the binary is reinforced by something more elemental, namely the distinction between coolness and uncoolness which the vast majority of Americans absorb, critically or otherwise, during their time in elementary, middle, and especially high school.
Yet there is still another factor informing Neyfakh’s perspective which sets him apart from most Americans: his parents. Neyfakh reveals that his father and mother were first-generation immigrants from Moscow, members of the Soviet intelligentsia: “a largely Jewish, highly educated circle who prized intellect above all else” whose rigid observance of the distinction between high art and low art played no small part in rendering them, prior to their dissolution as a self-sustaining class in the wake of their emigration and the demise of the Communist regime they despised, the most cultured set of intellectuals on the planet, quite possibly ever — provided, that is, that one accepted their equation of culture with the finest ancient, European, Russian, and (very occasionally) American productions in literature, philosophy, classical music, cinema, and the fine arts. This view of art and culture isn’t, one would like to think, intrinsically hierarchical; nonetheless, the manner by which it represents and reproduces itself, from its origins in the Renaissance to the present day, has always been as the preserve of a metropolitan elite: merchant princes in Florence, the aristocrats and lawyers of ancien regime Paris, London’s more pompous Victorians, the Bildungsbürger of Second Reich Berlin, the New York intellectuals clustered around Partisan Review, the circle of late Soviet Moscow professionals in which the Neyfakhs felt at home.
But we think differently about art here, and the memoir sections of The Next Next Level are most compelling when the author addresses the cultural gap between the Soviet immigrants and their American son. In his youth, Neyfakh’s parents induce him to read deeply in their own cultural canon — “the art, poetry, and novels they believed to be the greatest in the world” — but when he attempts to write pop songs for voice and electric guitar on his own, their response can be described, charitably, as indifferent. “It’s fine that you are doing this,” his father tells him when Neyfakh, during high school, plays him his homemade EP in the car. “But you have to ask yourself: is it really the thing you are better at than other people?” Unhindered by intellectual contempt for popular culture, the parents of his musically ambitious friends are far more supportive: they drive their children to practice and even have bands and equipment of their own. Though the author is too respectful to his parents to state the question directly, it’s very difficult to imagine that he doesn’t wonder, often, whether his attempts to become an artist would have flourished in the light of greater parental sympathy.
* * *
So, leaving aside a somewhat spectral distinction between Jew and Gentile, we already have, in Neyfakh’s book, three cultural binaries which double, in a pinch, as cultural hierarchies: the distinction, fundamentally Old World and practically aristocratic, between high and low, fine and profane; the split between cool and uncool, fundamentally American and at least nominally democratic (only here can it be a given that the “cool” kids and the “popular” kids are synonymous); and the genius/critic dichotomy developed by extremely status-nervous liberal arts majors at an upper-echelon American university, a dichotomy which, as far as I can tell, mirrors both the ruthlessly selective logic of the institutional meritocracy from which its adherents benefit and its flaws — who, exactly, is fit to objectively assess genius or merit? It seems excessive to add a fourth, but there is one. Indifferent to the third and partially overlapping with the second, it is explicitly, resentfully, and absolutely opposed to the first: vigorous, uneducated dynamism takes precedent over effete intellectual arabesques. There is something very American about this, particularly in the field of popular music: the strident negations of punk, metal’s fanatical insistence on corporeal being, and the relentless, booming strife of hardcore rap all partake of an ethos where the traditional privileging of refinement over rawness is turned on its head. This is the only binary of the four to which Juiceboxxx would be likely to subscribe, and Neyfakh recognizes why: his accounts of Juice’s live performances capture, with great fidelity, the physicality and dynamism of the artist, going so far as compare him to an athlete.
Yet despite the obvious affinity between this general aesthetic and the art of the artist he worships, Neyfakh can’t bring himself to subscribe to it fully. For one thing, he himself is physically awkward: as he notes, he has never been able to dance and rarely feels at peace in his own body. His personal discomfort for the aesthetic is compounded by his distaste for the anti-intellectual rhetoric to which its practitioners are prone: in a revealing aside, Neyfakh describes his experience, as a music reporter, at a 2010 concert in Williamsburg held by the punk-tinged indie rock band Wavves. In Neyfakh’s telling, two of the band members spent the interludes between songs mocking the higher education and “coolness” of the audience, who for the most part laughed appreciatively. Neyfakh, thoroughly unamused, wrote a review of the band where he compared the band members’ media baiting to Sarah Palin’s and stated that “The more distressing thing about Wavves’ popularity here is that it means New Yorkers are buying into the idea that being that kind of loser [the band’s lead singer was vocal, in interviews, about his non-collegiate life of smoking weed and playing video games] is a good thing to be. Because is it, really? What’s so great about sitting around doing nothing all the time? And what’s so bad about college, anyway?”
The piece concedes that Wavves makes good music and suggests that its effortless appeal to an educated demographic has much to do with a recession which has rendered college graduates disproportionately unemployed, but there’s no mistaking its condescending, even acid tone, exemplified by Neyfakh’s eager deployment of the term “loser.” Losers, in his usage, aren’t characterized by their looks so much as by their actions, or failures to act: it’s not a case of the cool kid looking down on the loser who can’t dress right but one of the high school junior who does all their homework looking down on the loser who does none. As a forthright defense of old-fashioned middle-class — meaning, in America, college-educated — virtues and their cultural correlates (he takes time out to praise the atrociously named colgrad indie rock band Real Estate as a “polite” [his term] alternative to Wavves), Neyfakh’s piece stands more or less alone in the annals of recent cultural journalism. Whether it should have more company, or deserves any, is an open question — in any case, there’s a tension implicit in the critic’s withering scorn for Wavves’ sound, which he finds thoughtless, and image, which he finds contemptible. To his credit, he addresses it: how can he maintain his gargantuan estimation of Juiceboxxx’s genius when Juice’s own sound and ethos overlap, to a large degree, with that of Wavves, a band of which Juice is not only a fan but a friend?
Neyfakh addresses the conundrum, but fails to resolve it.
As much as I despise the idea that one must be capable of having thoughtless, unhinged fun in order to be truly alive — and I do despise it a lot, maybe more than I despise anything else, to the point where I’ve argued, in my more extreme moods, that it amounts to a generic form of anti-Semitism — it seems that I pretty much totally buy into it when it’s coming from Juice.
This process, where the author identifies an intriguing contradiction between his general outlook on society and art and his peculiar veneration of an artist whose own outlook diverges wildly from it, then fails to convert the contradiction into anything more perceptive than a restatement of faith in said artist’s exceptional nature, recurs so often in The Next Next Level that it constitutes the general structure of the book. The reader is enmeshed in a mystery so nebulous that even the nature of what it is at stake is unknown: Juiceboxxx is presented to us in much the same way that the Castle presents itself in Kafka, an overawing force to whom access is (sparingly) given but the ultimate knowledge of which is impossible; Neyfakh, likewise, presents himself as a kind of latter-day K, an intrepid, low-key selfish interloper who diligently seeks the heights of the monumental figure which is, it’s implied, at least partly of his own construction, which is to say within him.
When K saw the Castle in January, he asked the Castle more or less directly if K was right to suspect that he had inadvertently ruined everything. K laughed as the words came out of his mouth, because the possibility that the Castle would say, “yeah, actually,” or even, “yeah, kind of,” was too horrible for K to fathom with a straight face. The Castle had been a free being before he decided to let K be his friend; it may have been living an uncertain, not very comfortable life, but at least it was in his own lane, its hands gripping the wheel even as it swerved, skidded, and stalled. Then K came along and made the myopic assumption that what was best for him, a professional journalist with a wife, a dog, and a savings account, was also best for the Castle, a turbulent and ambitious force who ran with dreams K never really had a chance of understanding.
These are, slightly remixed, the first sentences of the introduction of The Next Next Level; the resemblance to the style of Kafka’s novels is eerily exact, from the casually grotesque overstatements (“ruined everything,” “too horrible to fathom with a straight face”) to the ambiguous, partially self-negating locutions (“more or less directly”) right down to the rare but oddly prolonged metaphor with the car driver. (Recall, too, that The Castle was originally written in first-person and that The Next Next Level may well be the most Kafkaesque title imaginable.)
* * *
The quintessential Kafka insight is that we find power in the strangest places — in fact, we only find power in the strangest places, because power is fundamentally strange to us. Leon Neyfakh is not the greatest literary genius of the 20th century, but what he does share with the legendary modernist is the childlike capacity to be completely overawed — by his parents, against whom he never rebelled; by the United States, whose culture and language he encountered at the age of five; by its popular musicians (“Migos, for example — the reason I like them is that they exist in a completely different dimension from me. What they’re capable of doing in the studio is unfathomable to me. Or Lil Wayne. Any of the truly exciting superstars, they’re unrelatable because they’re so great”). Power, among humans, inheres in what one believes to be powerful, and he has invested overwhelming power in a pasty, gawky, marginally successful rap-rock artist who dropped out from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in his freshman year to play a thousand basements and who, in his lyrics, self-identifies as a loser of the type that Neyfakh habitually scorns.
This would be fine, and also cool perhaps, if the author creatively reviewed the vexing questions of social class and cultural hierarchy stirred up by his enthusiasm, or if he transmitted some sustained impression of how a musician on the margins of popular culture makes psychic and financial ends meet in the 21st century. But neither of these occur because Neyfakh is almost always too awestruck by his subject to perceive him as someone who chooses and suffers from those choices, which is to say, as a human being. When, at last, three-fifths of the way through his book, Neyfakh is informed by his subject that he’s no mere mindless Dionysian dynamo but also someone who carefully calibrates his recordings and live acts, it strikes him with the force of an epiphany: “Maybe I don’t need to feel like a hypocrite for loving Juiceboxxx after all. And maybe, just maybe, that means the difference between people like him and people like me is less black and white than I have always assumed.” Drastically belated, it’s a touching moment nonetheless. But it doesn’t last: four pages later the author deploys yet another flimsy cultural binary in order to segregate him, and the rest of the human race, from his hero: “Juiceboxxx, whose sensibility is so particular and so self-directed that it makes him different from everybody else on the planet […] It’s impressive to me that his aesthetic universe is so full of stuff that he himself decided, consciously, to populate it with — pieces of culture that he deliberately picked out, from all the culture that exists in the world, and made into part of who he is.”
Before, according to Neyfakh, Juice had no brain, and was therefore a “genius”; only “critics,” paralyzed by self-awareness, could think. But now that Juice has a brain, everyone else must be transformed, ipso facto, into lemmings. He has “taste”; mere mortals such as Neyfakh and his audience only have “preferences,” which is why “even those of us who self-identify as being well-informed and engaged in culture end up being into more or less the same stuff as all our friends and acquaintances.” But taste is the pattern, not the antithesis, of preferences, and the range swept over by that “more or less” is so broad as to render “the same stuff” meaningless; when conformity in preference emerges, it often does so as a function of class solidarity, which, however stupid, is anything but mindless. When human beings become artists, they do not cease to be human beings; human beings who possess particularly keen taste do not purify their mortal souls in a bath of pale fire prior to ascending hipster Mount Olympus.
It becomes evident, then, that whatever sense the reader gains of Juiceboxxx as a person can only take place in the intervals when, speaking directly, he bursts through the cocoon of semi-divine admiration that Neyfakh spins incessantly around him. What we learn of him then is as appealing as it is abbreviated. He has broad, strange, deep tastes covering multiple genres, sub-genres, and micro-genres of American music. He dropped out of college after his friend was killed in a robbery because he realized he could die before creating the music that he needed to create. Music, for him, is truly a matter of life and death: “Juiceboxxx has just been a really weird attempt at me not killing myself for twelve years.” He seeks to build a broader audience but is wary of abandoning his core fans. He’s perceptive about art and commerce: “Since oil companies and corporations in general control the government, writing jingles for them and taking their checks is not that different from taking public grants, which lots of arts organizations do.” And, though haunted by an acute self-consciousness regarding his failures and deficiencies (“this identity based on this totally absurd premise”), he is proud:
“Nothing beats having a real mission. To put it on the line every night, just give it one hundred percent? I know it seems like, sort of inconsequential. But just to be able to travel and play a show, to actually touch ground, that matters to me […] I want to fucking cover the earth.”
One finishes the book certain, as Juiceboxxx was when Neyfakh originally proposed it to him, that a book about him was a good idea. Whether this particular book about him was a good idea seems more of a question — though not for the artist, who has been vocal about his distaste in interviews (“I feel just like a cipher, like I was the jumping off point for Leon to talk about himself”) and concerts. “I don’t care about the next level,” he said at a recent show in Baltimore. “I don’t even care about the next next level. I don’t even care about the next next next level!” It’s hard not to see why. For complicated reasons of his own, the mass of which he presents but never manages to untangle, Neyfakh smothers his subject with need, abasement, and an expectation of radical difference that proves self-fulfilling: “I badly want him to acknowledge that he and I are in fact very different. And also to feel sorry for me. And also to tell me it’s OK that I am who I am.” In lieu of shedding more light on the aesthetic interests and human difficulties of an intriguing, easily misunderstood American musician, he fumbles with an array of facile cultural binaries in the hopes, obviously doomed, of objectively justifying his exorbitant personal estimation of the artist. “There’s a hole in my life that I can’t escape,” raps Juiceboxxx in his song “Like a Renegade.” How strange it must feel when the hole in his life and the halo that his overeager fan keeps trying to crown him with coincide; how grim it has to be when they, more often, don’t.
* * *
So what’s the real deal with Juiceboxxx? What’s striking, maybe all that’s striking, about Juiceboxxx’s music is its directness, its inability and unwillingness to reach beyond personal circumstance. This doesn’t mean that it’s not contrived or calculated, just that a very large subset of rhetorical signaling by which musicians construct “a larger than life” persona to accompany their music is consciously eschewed: forgoing all but the most basic symbols, Juiceboxxx raps about himself, his life, his struggles, as such. (“Chinatown bus to NYC / New Year’s Eve, I was up in Philly / Playing a show and got booed off stage / Then I got wasted and ate a cheese steak.”) The reason his success is limited is not due to a lack of talent: he has an original and discerning ear, and artists with far less talent have achieved far more. Rather his success seems limited because his mode of honesty is, for an independent white American rapper working from the 90s onward, unmarketable — unmarketable because uncool. Aesthetically, it isn’t possible to exist on the same plane as daily life and be a white rapper and sell lots of records and be cool; even the mixed-race major-label rapper J. Cole, who successfully sells songs about basic living to a mass audience, is routinely mocked for his blandness. The only way to achieve the critical mass of popularity required for coolness to become a self-sustaining reaction is to construct an image of oneself that is larger than life — a look, an ambience, an aura. (Successful examples abound, but Eminem and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs seem to be the most interesting to contrast with Juiceboxxx.)
But Juiceboxxx’s look is precisely, as mentioned, the look of no look, the aura of no aura. This doesn’t mean that his art isn’t powerful, but it does restrict its range, by and large, to live venues where his physicality, undiluted, can compensate to some degree for his uncoolness (he’s not ugly, but he’s not handsome, his voice doesn’t sound “cool,” and he doesn’t dress harmoniously). By investing so heavily in an image based on his own unvarnished, non-posturing existence, he makes it extremely hard to change course artistically: short of time traveling to the Cold War decades, his best chance for broad success lies abroad, most likely in Japan or South Korea, where his forthright approach retains greater appeal and the audience, enmeshed in a different cultural matrix, will have a harder time branding him as uncool.
As far as Neyfakh goes, it actually is fair to say that he shares a thing or two with Juiceboxxx. He, too, prizes earnestness and is unable or unwilling to posture beyond himself. But the class difference (the gulf between UW-Milwaukee dropout and Harvard ’07 is immense), the fact that he is not an artist, and Neyfakh’s tendency to deify anything he likes all combine to preclude any insight into what makes the artist unique, to the author and in general. Neyfakh isn’t cool either, but he does have substantial reserves of social capital: he graduated from Harvard, interned at n+1, was written about by Gawker (how I first heard of him in 2008), and has written for the New York Observer, Boston Globe, New Yorker, Fader, and Slate. Whether he knows it or not, he describes, in his book, how he leveraged this social capital to approach Juiceboxxx: first to get the artist a job, then to make friends with him, then to write a book about him. It must be strange and off-putting to be confronted with a fan who has more power than yourself but who, because he idolizes you to such an extreme, doesn’t know it; his obliviousness to that difference while he plays up a different, dehumanizing difference you refuse to recognize could hardly fail to be disorienting. In Juiceboxxx’s own words, “His [Leon’s] life is objectively better than mine […] It’s easy to look at me and look at whatever I’m doing and think, oh wow, that’s cool, that’s exciting, but […] he can say that because he doesn’t have to live it.” If there’s any ethics to be gleaned from The Next Next Level, it has to be negative — a lesson on the dangers of insisting too much on aesthetic hierarchies, even hierarchies such as Neyfakh’s where he eagerly consigns himself to the bottom for the greater glory of the artist. It’s true that one of the purposes of art is to go farther than safety, but since Neyfakh, by his own admission, is not an artist, his energies should be devoted to clarifying the real state of the human being before him rather than exhibiting his manifold anxieties regarding a fictitious splendor of his own creation.
* * *
It would be unfair, I think, to end without proposing some provisional solutions to the dilemmas that so perplex Neyfakh, the presence of which constitutes a great deal of the appeal of his book just as the inertness of their treatment accounts for much of its frustration. When we consider why some Americans become artists while others do not, it may be helpful here to think, the nation’s history and baleful work ethic being what they are, of the artist as a kind of symbolic criminal, and of art as a form of illegal employment. The romance of the artist and the mystique of the outlaw are closely linked in American culture, nowhere more so than in the rhetoric flourishing within its most vibrant, influential field, that of rap music. Perhaps the legal definition of what constitutes a criminal — motive, means, and opportunity — can shed some light on what makes for an artist; in that case, the reason why Neyfakh didn’t become a popular musician would be, as he implies, largely because his highbrow immigrant parents weakened his motive, reduced his means, and limited his opportunity. Regardless of their degree of support, it’s obvious that first-generation immigrants make exceedingly poor pop culture guides for their children, who are left to figure things out alone, more or less (they get by, generally, with a little help from their friends).
As regarding the relative validity of the cultural hierarchies Neyfakh invokes, the first thing to say is that both their sheer multiplicity and the fickleness with which Neyfakh is able to pick up and discard each of them testify to a profound uneasiness regarding the center of power in America, cultural and otherwise. Taken individually, each of the five binaries corresponds to a social division: between the upper-middle class and everything below it (refined over raw), between black and white (cool over uncool), between college students accepted to top-tier schools and those rejected (genius over critic), between the working class and everything above it (raw over refined), between hipsters and consumers (taste over preference). No one knows what to make of them when they are taken together, as we inevitably do, any more than we can pin down our distance from the center of society or predict our future within it. If uncertainty prevails, then readiness is all: when it’s impossible to hold to any rigid cultural standards the only valid course of action, I suspect, is a kind of piercing generosity. Yeats once wrote of holding reality and justice in a single thought; is it really that impossible to fruitfully compare Portishead and Emily Brontë, Racine and Rakim, Beowulf and Biggie Smalls, Frank Ocean and Tao Lin? As far as Neyfakh goes, he’s no novice at this game: he cites Pale Fire and the contemporary German writer Daniel Kehlmann’s novel Me and Kaminski as influences on The Next Next Level. Still, I do wish that he’d been more aware — not culturally literate so much as personally cognizant. If Juiceboxxx writes a song about an overzealous fan who fails to see the artist as anything more than a projection of his own inner turmoil, the most important thing to know is that he — Juiceboxxx, that is — would be well within his rights. But, it would also be fun, and potentially insightful, to remember that he wouldn’t be the first white rapper to compose such a song.
Frank Guan’s non-fiction has appeared in The New Republic and is due to appear in Art in America, but he mostly writes for n+1. He is entering his fourth year in New York City.
This piece originally appeared in the Full Stop Quarterly Issue #2. The Quarterly is available to download or subscribe here.