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Juvenile

UTP/Atlantic

The final, incontrovertible sign that Public Enemy has squandered its legacy isn’t New Whirl Odor. It’s not even Flavor of Love. It’s that the man who wrote “Back That Azz Up” has become a better protest poet than Chuck D. “Get Ya Hustle On,” the first song on Juvenile’s Reality Check, will deservedly be remembered as the definitive Hurricane Katrina song. Propelled by a thudding beat and pull-yourself-up-by-your-Lugz-straps optimism, it sure beats the camo pants off of PE’s rushed “Hell No We Ain’t Alright,” right down to the critique of the media: “Fuck Fox News! I don’t listen to y’all ass/Couldn’t get a nigga off the roof when the storm passed.” It’s tempting to say that Reality Check, with its politically aware title and stark black-and-white art, is some kind of maturation for the 31-year-old MC, who lost his Slidell, La., home to the disaster. But that doesn’t account for lines like “Hustle”’s “Everybody need a check from FEMA/So he can go and score him some cocaína”—or for the fact that, although Juvenile built his fame on party anthems, he’s always been more self-aware than we’d like to think. Even on the one “Azz” came from, 1998’s 400 Degreez, he punctured the gangsta mythos: “You the one that robbed them little dudes out they shoes last night, ha/You don’t go in the projects when it’s dark, ha.” On Reality Check, even the songs about sex and drugs sidestep hiphop convention. “Rodeo” has to be the saddest-ass stripper song in the history of the genre, with lethargic beats and downbeat, sympathetic lyrics that evoke the dreary, monotonous reality of gentlemen’s clubs (“You’re all beautiful women, if you’re insecure”). And coke-dealing cut “Break a Brick Down,” all skittery rhythms and distorted samples, demystifies as much as it celebrates: “I guess I’ll just call myself the king of hustlin’/I make things happen, nigga—I’m a panhandler/Shit not like how it’s lookin’ on camera.” But Juvenile’s dis against fellow NOLA rapper and former Cash Money labelmate Lil Wayne, “Say It to Me Now,” is the most melancholic thing here—a track that features not only a spooky music-box melody but also a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. “I couldn’t call you when my bills wasn’t paid,” Juve rhymes. “Wasn’t dependin’ on nigga to send me shit my way.” By turns buoyant and beaten-down, Reality Check gives us fine examples of both Juvenile’s maturity and his immaturity—proof that, even in the wake of a disaster, some things never change. —David Dunlap Jr.