The biggest potential problems with Juvenile’s seventh and newest album have little to do with the music itself. The stumbles of Reality Check really have more to do with timing, marketing, hype, and the expectations that come with a combination of the three.
Juvenile is from New Orleans. Specifically, as he has been historically fond of pointing out, he’s a former resident of the Magnolia projects in New Orleans’ Third Ward, one of the places typically singled out as the area of New Orleans most severely devastated by Hurricane Katrina, thanks to a combination of its location and its already dire economic situation. It’s also an area that four months of hurricane relief efforts have conspicuously neglected, right along with a number of the other less well-off regions of the destroyed city—regions largely forgotten and abandoned. An awful lot of the advance hype for Reality Check has capitalized on this connection, putting the expectation of a defiant, sorrowful meditation on current events into Juvenile’s largely unprepared, unexpecting hands. The cover of Reality Check, a stark, black and white profile of a very serious, almost melancholy Juvenile feeds into the expectation, as does the fact that he was the first artist let back into the Lower Ninth Ward for a video shoot for upcoming single “Get Ya Hustle On”.
As a matter of fact, putting “Get Ya Hustle On” right at the front of the album (following a brief, pointless intro track) continues to feed into the possibility of an ironically “mature” album from an artist whose chosen moniker implies the opposite. Over a handclap and minor-key synth-dominated track from XL, Juvie raps: “Talk to ‘im, your mayor ain’t your friend, he’s the enemy/ Just to getcha vote, a saint is what he pretend to be/ Listen to me, I got the remedy/ Save your money up and find out who got ‘em for 10 a ki”, proposing, yes, crack dealing as the most viable remaining solution to break through the impenetrable wall of poverty stifling the area. Over the course of the song, he takes on Fox News, Bush, and the local police, to the point where no matter what you think of his solution, you can at least feel the frustration from which that solution was borne.
So, this is all promising, but it all feeds into a false representation of the musical persona that Juvenile portrays. First impressions aside, Juvenile is just as focused on himself, his money, his beefs, and his “bitches” as he’s always been.
It’s that last that disappoints the most. A track like “Loose Booty” is almost forgivable as an ode to one particular female posterior played for humor and laughs. What’s more troubling is “Rodeo”, which was actually released as the first single from Reality Check, a song that’s actually supposed to be a sensitive track for all the strippers out there, particularly those in the business because they’ve got nothing else to fall back on. While a great track surely exists in such a subject, this ain’t it. Despite lines that hint towards good intentions (“Its not the right spot to let your daughters visit/ There’s some freaks up in here and its all explicit”), the fact that he’s speaking from the center of a strip club gets the better of Juve, and he tempers any understanding with encouragement like “I ganked a nod and you a beautiful bitch/ You got a face and a ass and a smile that won’t quit”. It’s as if even as he’s trying to allow for some uplifting words to the subject of his affections, he needs to knock her back down, pointing out her place in life one more time.
None of this is even to point out my incredulous reaction to Brian McKnight’s hook in “Addicted”: “You’re just addicted to what the dick did”, he says, aiming for conflict in a song that basically tells an unnamed (and more than slightly obsessed) tryst to go away. Even aside from McKnight’s sophomoric choice of words, Juvenile doesn’t even bother to rap in this one, opting instead for simple, unspectacular prose that’s not even close to engaging. Indeed, the entire payoff is in that stomach-lurching hook.
Slightly better (though still tiresome by the end of the album) is the concentration on Juvenile’s tough guy persona. “Around the Way” is a pretty solid joint produced by Sinista, complete with lots of horns, record scratches, and more of those minor-key synths surrounding the sort of street-tough self-aggrandizement for which the only possible goal is intimidation. “Break a Brick Down” is an ode to dealing cocaine that takes a time out for a shot at Juve’s former Cash Money compatriot and current nemesis, Baby. “Pop U” brings Fat Joe and Ludacris along for the ride to rhyme on top of the best production job on the album (there’s some serious ringtone potential here), but unfortunately, they don’t live up to the challenge, spitting some generic gangsta lyrics and fading mercifully into the background.
If you’ve heard a Juvenile album before, none of this comes as a surprise to you. He’s been working the same shtick for years, regardless of who his friends and enemies are at any given time, and if you own any of Juve’s other albums, you pretty much know what you’re getting with Reality Check. The problem is, the potential was there for so much more, and besides the added punch of one solid track, “so much more” is nowhere to be found.