Named after a weird DJ who would slow records down to suit the slurry buzz associated with drinking cough syrup out of season, the "screw" mix has been a staple of Southern hip-hop for years. Before he died in 2000—at the age of 30, of a reportedly syrup-stoked heart attack—DJ Screw built up a strange shadow-industry from his home in Houston, where rappers sipped syrup from baby bottles and drooled over mix-tapes that ran at… extremely… slow… speeds. The baby bottles fit: There's no mistaking the confounding shock of hearing a screw mix filled with ghoulishly drawled vocals and beats that spray more than snap.
As per new hip-hop tradition, Houston DJ Michael Watts has "chopped & screwed" two of the biggest dirty South albums of the year. Lil Jon's Crunk Juice sounds more immediately bracing, if only because the change of speeds and connotations proves more drastic. Aggressive scream-fests turn to methodical dirges, while the spooky piano tinkles and horror-movie synths otherwise bowled over by bass rise to the top like ice clinking at the rim of a goblet. Watts' own production touch plays a big role, too: Tracks like "White Meat" and "Da Blow" smear together, sharing instrumental parts and trading vocal snippets spliced out of place. (The "chopped" part refers to edits—of voices and beats—that turn to glorious noise for head-turning spells of time.) The screwed version also rescues the ballads that sink large parts of Crunk Juice proper: "Lovers & Friends," featuring a luscious Usher and Ludacris, nervously lurches and gulps where it first ran numbingly smooth.
More in line with beguiling style swerves by disposition, Ying Yang Twins sound no less retooled on U.S.A. Singed mid-range sounds take on new prominence in tracks like "F*** The Ying Yang Twins," in which ping-pong vocal volleys take on the rhythms of badminton. Some of the tracks don't sound especially slowed down, but the effect screams for attention in the hit "Wait (The Whisper Song)." The minimal bass-and-finger-snap beat sounds more like something small and insectile dying at twilight after a storied life. And the whispered promise to "beat the pussy up" proves a few hundred times more lascivious and creepy than normal. It's enough to leave listeners at a loss for what to think and how to react, which qualifies as a win in too few quarters.