I looked forward to The Next Next Level by Leon Neyfakh. The short summer reading list where I first encountered the book described it as a “biography of [Neyfakh’s] friend, the intense rapper who goes by Juiceboxxx” and asks, “What drives those obsessed with their art, and what makes other people obsessed with them?” The book also attempts to investigate other questions, things along the lines of “Was it really worth all the sacrifices?” “How do you know when you’ve made it?” “What makes an artist?” and “What is art?” Having recently graduated from art school, I’m unsure if it was the right decision or if I even want to attempt to face life as an “artist.” There’s an additional detail that sold me on the book: I met Juiceboxxx through my roommate in the summer of 2013, and was already familiar (however vaguely) with his music as well as with him as a person. Neyfakh is described as Juiceboxxx’s friend, so why wouldn’t I want to read a biography written by someone with an intimate relationship with their subject. There’s just one problem: it wasn’t a biography.
The premise of the book is that Juiceboxxx is in New York, Neyfakh’s place of residence, for about a month before he goes on tour, and is considering relocating there permanently; he has never settled down in one spot, spending the majority of his adult life touring the country. Neyfakh, a reporter for Slate, uses this month to conduct a series of interviews with Juiceboxxx, so he can “write something about his life, his career, and the time he is spending in New York while pondering his future.” Juiceboxxx agrees, and the reader is led to believe that they’re about to get just that: a book about Juiceboxxx’s life, career, and his time in New York.
Fact is, The Next Next Level is an autobiography. The book opens with an introduction, with Neyfakh describing how he got Juiceboxxx a day job and mentions a dinner where he bluntly asks Juiceboxxx: “Did I destroy you?” He shifts immediately into referring to Juiceboxxx as “Juice”—which feels perverse and creepy, not intimate, and is a trend that continues throughout most of the book. Neyfakh calls him “my idol,” which doesn’t seem accurate; Neyfakh doesn’t seem inspired as much as he is obsessed. Obsession with an artist isn’t uncommon, nor is it inherently uncomfortable, but Neyfakh talks about Juiceboxxx like a stalker. I was reminded of a psych class I took, where we talked about people suffering from delusions, believing they were involved in intimate relationships with people with whom they had little to no actual contact. In the first chapter of the book, Neyfakh leads the reader to believe that he and Juiceboxxx are close friends, saying, “We’ve known each other since we were in high school” while later in the same chapter he recounts a story where he is forced to admit “with the exception of one summer weekend after my freshman year of college […] Juiceboxxx and I have never spent any actual time together.”
Neyfakh spends the majority of the book talking about himself, his personal history, his obsession with Juiceboxxx, and how sad and depressed he is about his own station in life. He not only fetishizes Juiceboxxx, but artistic talent itself, expressing genuine surprise when Juiceboxxx has actually done research, has influences, has a calculated way he approaches his music and performances; in short, that Juiceboxxx takes himself and his art seriously. The author admits he believed that Juiceboxxx’s talent came from a pure, raw, primal, instinctual place of feeling, as if intellectualism not only had no place in “true art” but was in fact the antithesis to it. He claims that he no longer feels this way, but fails throughout the rest of the book to demonstrate it.
There are chapters without a single mention of Juiceboxxx’s name. Even the parts of the story that detail Juiceboxxx’s time in New York are peppered with unnecessary details about Neyfakh’s personal life; he describes kissing his wife goodnight before heading to a party to meet up with Juiceboxxx, and, perhaps more offensively, launches into yet another embarrassing story about his childhood while in the midst of recounting his sit-in at one of Juiceboxxx’s band practices. Neyfakh’s preference to talk about himself is consistent throughout the book—I’m surprised he had the audacity to call this a biography. The most telling line appears at the end of chapter seven. Neyfakh is riding the subway back to his house after attending the first show on Juiceboxxx’s tour, and lets the reader know that “on the subway ride back to my apartment I think about how much I love being [Juiceboxxx’s] number one fan. Neyfakh’s writing style is overwhelmingly simplistic and bland. He describes one scene where he’s at a party and, feeling awkward, considers writing descriptions of what the other partygoers look like, but he decides he “lack[s] the vocabulary and shouldn’t bother.”
One last note: I saw Juiceboxxx perform at Baltimore’s Crown on July 31st. It was a fantastic show. Neyfakh’s assessment of Juiceboxxx’s live shows is one of the few things in this book I recommend—the energy is infectious and it’s hard not to get sucked into everything about him in the moment. In the middle of the show, Juiceboxxx took a short break in his set to deliver a speech. “I don’t care about the next level,” he said. “I don’t even care about the next next level.” A few of his friends smiled at each other and laughed. “I don’t even care about the next next next level,” Juiceboxxx continued. “All I care about is tonight, here and now.” This pause in the performance mirrored a scene in Neyfakh’s book. Juiceboxxx takes a similar break and delivers a speech, letting his audience know that tonight, and only tonight, “not only are we gonna go to the next level, we’re gonna go to the level above the next level…That’s right, ladies and gentlemen… we’re going to the NEXT NEXT LEVEL! Who’s with me?”
—Follow Leigh Ann Josephine on Twitter: @saponified