ropes are a big deal in art. Eliot never got over the war, Plath the domestic fall-out, Ang Lee is probably still obsessed with some gorgeous Chinese landscape scroll, Interpol probably has more to say about September 11, and N.W.A. sure as hell never forgot who helped decimate the black lower middle class in L.A.
Southern rappers are now finally having their say about the fall-out of the Katrina/FEMA eradication/abandonment of most of working class black New Orleans. Lil’ Wayne whipped up some searing, rebirth imagery (i.e. the second verse of “Best Rapper Alive”) and David Banner, Certified already in the can, began lumping together sum after sum on a tour devoted entirely to charity.
Juvenile, in Cash Money exile, struggling with his own fledgling UTP clique, remained silent.
But as the recovery process grinded to life, anyone with their senses open came to some tough conclusions: some places in N.O. are going to be fine. There are no two ways about this. Tulane is going to be fine. The Saints will play ball again. But in the 9th Ward, it’ll be probably a few decades until the bulk of residents can reestablish their community.
If this is your reality, you probably have something to say about it. Thankfully, Juvenile does, and this alone makes Reality Check the most vital and gripping entry, his 9th, into his catalogue.
Initially quiet and sober enough to sound like he’s riding under the beat, barely cognizant of his surroundings (Juve has claimed all of the tracks recorded in “UTP Studios” on Reality Check were actually captured in a low-budget N.O. hotel), the album’s first song, “Get Ya Hustle On,” frames the album in the context of the tension between self-righteousness, pleasure and the rules that apply to everyone: laws.
This is anomalous because, a) “Get Ya Hustle On” is another in a long line of “street motivation” joints, and b), it not only explicitly calls out FEMA, Nagin, Cheney, and Bush, but it proposes a seemingly logical solution to the barren economy and decimated community: since the world has abandoned us and there’s no viable avenue to feed your families, start selling crack.
Immediately, and perhaps to a fault, our moral side jumps in.
The music video helps: It’s a stark, subtly colored affair (the lighting is often so dark and eerie the clip seems black and white) with Juvenile dispensing kitchen and corner do’s-and-don’t’s while three young black boys march around the post-apocalyptic horizons of the 9th Ward.
After stumbling across an untouched cardboard box, the three boys open it and discover paper masks of George Bush, Dick Cheney and New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin. Each boy dons a mask and continues walking as the camera surveys the scene: A school bus is smashed into a wall, still in place seemingly ages after the hurricane. Feeble particle board covers abscesses in homes, buildings, and schools. That is, of course, assuming there is anything more than a foundation left. A solitary figure holds a spray-painted sign that simply reads: “YOU ALREADY FORGOT.”
Without sounding too glib, that’s called a goddamned reality check.
Therefore, over an easily effective squelching stomp and 504 see-saw strings, Juvenile sounds half Lucifer/half cleric when he starts growling: “Talk to ’em! Your mayor ain’t your friend, he’s the enemy / Just to get your vote, a saint is what he pretend to be.”
What starts out as political rage turns into a weirdly persuasive, libertine (Second Earl of Rochester, not Katie Moss’s boy) style of self-destruction in the next line: “Fuck him! Ah-listen to me, I got the remedy / Save your money up and find out who got ’em for 10 a ki’”
Juvenile could be using the figure of “crack” to represent the independence and self-sufficiency southern rap has always prided itself on (their own labels, their own producers, their own geography), but what if maybe, just maybe, Juvenile is offering not just approval, but advice and tips on how to made any average citizen into a financially stable crack dealer?
Once we’re lead nose-first into the hook (the irresponsibly hypnotic “We take the Pyrex and then we rock with it, roll with it!”), and the second verse (“Everybody need a check from FEMA / So he can go and score him some co-ca-eena”), resistance is futile. He makes his case, he makes it sound irresistible, and, thanks to Juvenile’s slippery mastication of syllables and slang, it sounds like if we don’t start doing it, our neighbor is going to start shoveling snow.
“Get Ya Hustle On,” besides being a song with enough moxie, malice, empathy, audience manipulation and crack to make Jeezy, Clipse, and Cash jealous, is the best song on Reality Check, one of the best of his career, and an excellent display of the earthy, interpersonal tensions that make the album unpredictably rewarding and (how could a Juvenile record not be?) deeply charming.
Like Lil’ Wayne, who’s just had a self-awakening (the breathtaking Tha Carter II), Juvenile is a New Orleans boys in Mannie Fresh-less world. And also like Weezy, his shift to intercontinental, even a bit homogenized beats, is actually quite seamless. Juve even handles gummy, disposable synths on Scott Storch’s “Sets Go Up.”
Another pair of quiet hit makers, Cool & Dre, help Juve drive out another single “Rodeo,” a dapper interpolation of R.Kelly’s “Bump and Grind (Remix),” and, if you’re willing to give Juvenile (a man who made a career off of “Back That Azz Up”) a chance, it’s another song, like “Get Ya Hustle On,” that has him caught between morality, imposed systems, and his own heart.
But, perhaps out of convenience, it’s about strippers.
Instead of only praising their hips, ass, and general flexibility (he does plenty of that), he actually has concern for the women taking off their clothes: “I ain’t lyin’ sometimes when you cross my path / Up in the club all night and niggaz stalk yo ass.” Is he a bad person for his concern? Is the question pointless and inadequately male? Is anyone going to even pick out this line?
That’s exactly the tension between his new eye for introspection and empathy and his other, pulsing, gangster-level organs (heart, mouth, lungs, crotch) that imbues most of Reality Check with succinct turmoil and zeal. He said he doesn’t want to wear so much jewelry, but he needs it for his rep. He says he doesn’t care about haters, but demands to know exactly what they’re saying.
When you layer this level of concern over fluttering guitars (“I Know You Know,” Juve’s first great love song), Casio horn sections (“Why Not”) and dense hedonism (the sophomorically lewd and pleasurable “Loose Booty”), well, you’re getting closer to the type of gumbo Juvenile should be cooking.
Not all the songs on the album are as rewarding and packed as the highlights (the noxious Jigga sample and forced Houston cameos on “The Way I Be Leanin’” stink particularly bad), but after all the strip club detours, social concern and brick moving, Juvenile finally embraces his own gangster paranoia (the album closing “Say It To Me Now”) and takes solace in the simple gifts: “I’m alive and well.”
Now that’s a reality Juvenile hasn’t embraced in a while.