Straight out the streets of Memphis, Tennessee, the robbery capital of the U.S.," Three 6 Mafia proclaim at the outset of their new album, Last 2 Walk, and not because they're about to say anything insightful or interesting about this predicament. They just want to exploit the problem of Memphis crime to give the reckless sensationalism they sell an undercurrent of authenticity — all the better to serve the (real and would-be) gangstas, thrill-seeking cultural tourists, and genuflecting hipsters who make up much of their fan base.
This calculation is the central reality that governs the most polished album the rapper/producer duo Juicy J and DJ Paul have ever made, a long-delayed follow-up to 2005's pre-Oscar Most Known Unknown that, surprisingly, doesn't spend all that much time referencing a celebrityhood that's exploded since their last album: Oscar night, short-lived MTV series (Adventures in Hollyhood), cameos on TV series such as Entourage and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
Of course, a hip-hop album about the contours of violent crime in Memphis would be worth making. It's a big topic. Sadly, Last 2 Walk coincides with a lengthy Atlantic Monthly article about rising murder rates in small cities, using Memphis as a case study. The Wire, the HBO series about drug crime in Baltimore, is probably the decade's signature work of American culture, regardless of medium, and hip-hop has certainly proven capable of revealing this world with similar detail, craft, and insight (and even more immediacy), as the best work of Notorious B.I.G. and Ghostface Killah illustrates. Three 6 Mafia cohort Frayser Boy has had useful things to say about life on Memphis' mean streets.
But while grounding their music in the city's crime epidemic, Three 6 Mafia don't actually put much thought into the topic, particularly what it might be like to be the victim of the criminality they glorify. Such empathy is beyond them. Instead, despite such crime-oriented songs as "Trap Boom," "Get Ya Rob," and "Click Bang," this stuff is just atmosphere on Last 2 Walk, an album far more interested in menacing braggadocio, illicit substances, and usable women.
Last 2 Walk is saddled with a few of the overly repetitive, chanted choruses that have long been the group's worst purely musical tendency: "Don't play with me boy/Play with your Playstation," "Click, bang, bang/Click, bang, bang/To your mother[bleepin'] brain, ho," and "I said I love having sex but I'd rather get some head." (That last one the chorus of the album's first single!) But, overall, it's Three 6 Mafia's least sluggish, least hectoring, best rapped album yet, the last largely due to enhanced guest stars, such as the late Pimp C, whose smooth, gravelly flow enters "I Got" like a rhyme beacon, and Georgia rapper UNK, whose animated drawl enlivens the otherwise dreary "I'd Rather."
Whatever moral or philosophical differences one might have, there's no denying that Three 6 Mafia's improvement as music makers has at least partially driven their ascent. The epic, aurally eloquent "Stay Fly," from Most Known Unknown, is a stone-classic hip-hop single. There's nothing of that caliber on Last 2 Walk, but high-level R&B collaborators (a first) make this the group's toniest album by far. The best bets for hits here are the testimonials "Hood Star" and "That's Right," which feature sharp sung hooks from Lyfe Jennings and Akon, respectively. "That's Right," in particular, rumbles every bit like the "street anthem" they proclaim it to be.
But, honestly, I care too much about hip-hop and Memphis to find much pleasure in this growing musicality. "You know the worst thing about selling dope? Eighty percent of black people are in jail because of drugs, domestic violence, and murder. You should think about that," Juicy J proclaims at the end of "Trap Boom." It's a moment so self-serving that it almost stops the album in its tracks. After all, why should the listener think about it if the artists themselves aren't willing to?