Juvenile lacks context to justify his fixation on thuggishness, making "The Fundamentals" depressingly desperate in its efforts to remain hip to the game.
Fifteen years after 400 Degreez went four-times platinum, Juvenile has been unmoored back to the mainstream by a most unlikely benefactor: LeBron James. The King’s rendition of “Back That Azz Up” at a karaoke bar went viral last month, and after joining Juvie onstage at GQ’s NBA All-Star Weekend party, the Miami Heat superstar has given the former Hot Boy a much-needed second wind.
We haven’t heard much from Juvenile since 2006’s Reality Check, which was certified gold and offered cutting commentary on the American government’s responses to Hurricane Katrina. The songs lacking in depth—singles “Rodeo” and “The Way I Be Leanin’”—were compensated by Juvenile’s ear for beats, and guest spots from UTP’s Skip and Wacko showed a propritious ability to pick out talent from a New Orleans scene lacking the mainstream recognition of Atlanta or Houston.
The Fundamentals fails to offer much depth or dance, nor does it address the struggles of a 38-year-old from the milieu of ringtone Rap trying to reestablish a viable career. Instead, the album ambles through 10 gaudy, uninventive songs that range from trap and drill to Top 40 imitation. Hip Hop continues to grapple with the concept of maturity and longevity, and while Juvenile’s club-friendly Southern Rap shouldn’t be expected to forge that huge leap in subject matter, The Fundamentals is almost depressingly desperate in its efforts to remain hip to the game. “Apologizin’ is regrets,” he barks on “Livewire,” while he throws shade at a girl from his hood because she’s worried about paying bills on “Pay The Rent.”
Juvie’s work with the Hot Boys and his early solo career featured lyrics about police brutality and the impoverished condition of Uptown New Orleans. On 1999’s “Respect My Mind,” he made us privy to the details of his father getting locked up after his right-hand man made a deal with the Feds. But on The Fundamentals, only “Tales From the Hood” and the second verse of “Close Around” begin to offer context for Juvenile’s fixation on thuggishness. “One gun, two clips, I see a few of these niggas I won’t pop / A few of these niggas I won’t shoot / A few of these bitches I don’t like / A few of these bitches I want dead / I’m tryna kill them all in one night,” he raps on “Close Around.” He’s remarkably less subtle on the hook of “Kill Kill.” Juvenile’s propensity for charismatic party music is nowhere to be found in 2014, while the guttural drawl that aided his ascent on Cash Money has turned to a rancorous rasp.
Sonically, most of The Fundamentals is rooted in rapid 808s, ominous synth and brash bass kicks. He genuflects to Auto-tune on more than one chorus, and after working with Mannie Fresh on five songs from 2012’s Rejuvenation, The Fundamentals is produced by a staple of smaller names, including Sinista from the UTP days, Mike Maven and M-Mills. Each do an admirable job backing Juvenile with mainstream-accessible beats, but selling club Rap to a 38-year-old just seems sad for everybody involved.
“Let Em Know” is perhaps the album’s nadir, loaded with tried-and-true clichés about flossin’ on haters and poppin’ bottles with girls. “When it comes to getting head, they say it’s better to receive,” Juvie slurs in Auto-tune, before his son Young Juve struggles through a guest verse. Juvenile’s rhyme schemes have improved considerably, but the concept behind the songs is lacking. On “Super High,” he narrates a night of tweaking after smoking too much, but the two-verse story is bereft of any real details. On “This is Your Song,” he tries to put on for the ladies, and vows, “If your life sucks, I can make it suck less,” before asking if she wants him to finish on her stomach or her chest.
As Young Money readies the release of Rise of an Empire, we’re reminded of the days when Cash Money artists like Juvenile framed hedonistic Hip Hop around social justice issues. There’s nothing wrong with Juvenile still trying to make Southern party Rap, especially considering New Orleans’ rich history in bounce. But with several influential singles to his name, he could have at least flexed some veteran creativity and gone a bit deeper with his concept, rather than falling back on the formula that’s currently selling for rappers at least a decade younger than him. Even with the new attention it’s receiving, The Fundamentals is forgettable at best.