Duke Deuce may represent crunk revival, but at his best, he embodies reinvention. Released earlier this year, his Crunkstar album merged the most compelling classical elements of the Memphis subgenre with unpredictable samples and spurts of off-kilter melodies for a project that paid homage to the past while reimagining the raucous style in his own image. The militaristic goth and triple-time flows were there, but so were splashes of neon electric guitar, a Rico Nasty feature, and traces of whimsy from a gangster who’s not afraid to laugh at himself. It wasn’t a huge departure from standard Deuce — it’s still a soundtrack for club riots — but there’s enough experimentation to certify the Quality Control artist as someone who brings new dimensions to the legacy of the style that raised him.
His latest effort, Memphis Massacre III, doesn’t take the same rewarding risks, but it’s a trim distillation of competent crunk that can still eviscerate your speakers. Released just ahead of Halloween, the project sees Deuce operating in familiar territory, sprinting across hammering production that can be as exhilarating as it is sinister. For the opener, “Deucifer,” he taps a Memphis orchestra group to serve up a phantom-like soundtrack for his diaristic updates on actualized ambitions, a near-death experience and a shrinking circle of friends. Of course, he also makes time to give props to a certain Atlanta trio and his hometown. “Shoutout the Migos for bringin’ it back/But this triplet flow come from Memphis,” he raps.
Indeed, the triplet flow is something synonymous with Memphis acts like Three 6 Mafia, who Deuce’s father famously produced for many years ago. For his part, Deuce’s flows are as sharp as ever. He piles syllables with percussive force and the dexterity to oscillate between chant-like sentences (“Anna”) and tongue-twisting bars that would fit comfortably alongside Project Pat and Lord Infamous (“Mr. Memphis Massacre”). The alternating deliveries can either melt into his customary call and response hooks or they can break-up what could otherwise — and sometimes does — become a monotonous affair.
At its best, Memphis Massacre III sees Deuce infuse overpowering anthems with a dynamic mix of savagery and humor that cuts through generic street fare. On “Buck the System,” he lets loose splashes of autobiographical detail that’s probably sensationalized, but definitely a lot of fun: “Boom-boom-boom, police at my grandma door, middle school, got caught with a O/Police ask me how tall I was, I told that bitch I was seven foot four.” Meanwhile, “What’s My Name” features jumpy flows and uses a sample that repeats his name for a hook that will definitely be shouted at all his shows. With its demonic shouts and keys that could soundtrack a Halloween sequel, “Anna” is Duke at his most convincingly menacing.
While Memphis Massacre III demonstrates Deuce’s command of the basics, he never tries to transcend them; the project is hindered by one-note production. The ominous keys of the first five tracks evoke a dangerous atmosphere fitting for Deuce’s unsparing gunplay, but by the end of the run, it almost feels like you listened to one really long song. Contrast that with Crunkstar, which features plenty of fruitful experiments. “I Get Crunk” turns a classic LL Cool J sample into the stuff of fisticuffs and “Just Say That” combines the elegance of Richard Addinsell’s “Warsaw Concerto” with frenetic crunk percussion. It’s not revolutionary stuff, per se, but it’s evidence of Deuce creating things that were all his own. They’re playful, yet dangerous — concoctions fitting of a GD whose dancing made him a meme.
Memphis Massacre III also falls a little short in the hooks department. Save for a melodic reprieve like “Nobody Needs Nobody,” the choruses generally follow Deuce’s call and repeat format, which can get stale when you pick phrases that aren’t distinct enough to be anthemic. For every “Anna” you get a colorless refrain like “All That.” There are some heaters, but nothing comes close to the GloRilla-assisted “Just Say That” or “Crunk Ain’t Dead.”
Considering that it was released just a few months after Crunkstar, there wasn’t a need for Deuce to drop an incredible effort; he’s shown that he’s got deceptive range and a strong command of the essentials that made him a star. Deuce’s relentless energy keeps it afloat — even if you wish his creativity came closer to matching his enthusiasm.