By Mark Guarino
Ever since the levees of New Orleans broke, musicians from that city have been documenting its aftermath in song. In recording studios and concert stages far removed from their hometown, the city’s best known musical ambassadors have expressed frustration, anger and, above all else, what it means to miss New Orleans. Suddenly, songs that were written long before the devastation of the Katrina flooding, from Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” to Fats Domino’s “Walking to New Orleans,” seemed especially purposeful to talk about the present. The result is a flurry of new versions of old songs with the intent to eulogize a city that will never be the same and to rally a cry against the injustice that created the situation in the first place.
Yet for all the activity from the sectors of New Orleans traditionalists — jazz, funk, R&B — the representatives of the city’s hip-hop community have fallen silent. That changed this month when New Orleans rap star Juvenile released “Reality Check” (Atlantic), an album that intersperses his ubiquitous party rhymes with a fresh sense of urgency about the devastation Katrina’s floodwaters left behind.
It took a disaster for the rapper to turn a corner. After releasing his first album in 1995, recorded when he was still a teenager, Terius Gray attracted the attention of Cash Money, the New Orleans label that issued some of the most successful Southern hip-hop from the late 1990s. Juvenile became one of the label’s biggest stars and is credited for popularizing “bounce” music, recognized for its singsong choruses and energetic beats. His album “400 Degreez” (Cash Money) became the label’s biggest hit, reaching quadruple platinum status in 1998.
By the time he left the label complaining his royalties were being withheld, Juvenile had cemented a reputation for club tracks meant only for the hips, not head. His songs “Slow Motion” and “Back That Azz Up” became huge hits because of their undeniable pop hooks, minimal beats and call-and-response chants.
“Reality Check” was mostly in the can before Katrina hit town. The hurricane swept through the region, resulting in floods that claimed 70 percent of the city. Turned out the swamp water was not choosy. Juvenile, 30, was a victim himself — his home in nearby Slidell was wrecked, flooded and looted.
The result was a new song “Get Ya Hustle On,” a song that’s part complaint, part news report on the disenfranchised left with no homes. “Man, I’m tryin’ to live, I lost it all in Katrina,” he reports in his gruff Southern slang. “We starvin’, we livin’ like Haiti without no government.”
There is also a video making news. In January, Juvenile returned home, arriving in the Lower Ninth Ward where he filmed the devastation — crushed homes, the rubble of personal possessions, empty lots where homes used to stand. It’s more devastating to look at than anything screened on CNN. In the video, three young boys pick through the wasteland and discover three masks — President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Mayor Ray Nagin. As dark synthesizers push the song along, the children are seen walking through the devastation wearing their new faces while locals stand in what used to be their homes holding signs that read “Still Here” and “You Already Forgot.”
If those images aren’t difficult enough to absorb, it gets worse. While the video is more powerful than the song, the song delivers an even harsher reality: that people who already felt marginalized by society and their own government will slide further into apathy after the malfeasance and incompetence following the hurricane’s wake. Juvenile poses the destruction in not just physical terms but personal ones. “Everybody need a check from FEMA/So he can go and sco’ him some co-ca-lina,” he rasps. The chorus, catchy and fun on the surface, includes as reference to a glass pipe used for smoking crack. Raw and eerie, the song is the most anguished musical response to come from New Orleans yet.
The songs on the album that predate Katrina revisit standard fare: club anthems dressed in rattling beats and ominous synth lines. Top shelf producers Scott Storch, Cool and Dre juice the songs with jittery blips and crazy accents — a flute looped — that prevent the songs from sounding the same.
Juvenile boasts up a storm on songs dealing with drug trafficking (“you think you can’t get killed?/me neither”) and seductive strip club grinds. “Rodeo” is all glitter, riding an R. Kelly sample and a slinky guitar pattern. While some moments are open to ridicule — “Addicted” addresses a girlfriend-turned-stalker with guest crooner Brian McKnight answering to Juvenile’s spoken word protests — the album is an appealing snapshot of New Orleans past and present. On “Sets Go Up,” he gives a set of rules; number two is “never turn my back on my city.”
While northern rap titans like 50 Cent present themselves numb to street poverty, Juvenile’s scratched voice sounds agonized and beaten. Here is the divided New Orleans spirit many people post-Katrina still can’t figure out: Proud to be different, because assimilation to the wider society hasn’t worked yet.