Max Bell is not, and has never been, a juggalo.
If White Jesus was the introduction, then The Life and Times of Johnny Valiant is the autobiography, the book you’ve been waiting to read. Emotional and psychological wounds are (re)opened and drained, bled until one wonders if there is anything left in the self-dissecting patient.
Sixteen tracks in length, Rittz’s first proper LP is a Bourbon-soaked, worn down, southern-fried everyman rapidly rapping his ass off in hopes to beat the ticking of the clock he hears in his head. It is the Slumerican soundtrack for those trying to keep their head up and their Muppet-like mane out of their eyes through all the bullshit.
The opener, “Intro,” serves as thesis and confessional, the compulsory journal entry from an honest and uncertain road warrior who’s glad for the success he’s seen thus far, but fearful that the best laid beats and bars will go astray.
“Interview” feels like a skit turned into a solid rap record. It will probably find sympathy with every rapper tired of meeting interviewers who clearly haven’t done their research. “Fuck Swag” is an assault on rappers who dress like Lenny Kravitz and pause after dropping subpar punch lines. It’s less a direct attack on Lil B and Odd Future, and more on rappers of their ilk.
Despite being handled by a number of producers (DJ Burn One, Lifted, Kasper Brightside, and a few more) the album’s sound is relatively cohesive, chock full of spacey chunks of trunk rattling funk. The drums and bass lines are often simple and grounded in the South in a traditionalist sort of way, but hit hard every time out. And you’d be hard pressed to find one track without a guitar wailing or gently weeping somewhere beneath pools of Hennessey and piles of coke.
On the whole, Rittz is most at home when rapping about the turmoil in his life. Narratives that center on the plight of the homeless and the unfortunate end of homecoming queens (“Amen”) aren’t completely out of his wheelhouse, but are a stretch nonetheless. Tales like these feel more like after school specials from a guy who never paid any mind to them. Basically, his stories of substance abuse and antipathy for institutions of learning feel much more authentic.
When it really comes down to it, Johnny Valiant is at his most fun on tracks like “For Real,” where he delivers bone-crushing bars in double time. References to Busta Rhymes are followed by those to Boyz II Men and Nas (it’s more oblique, but it’s there), but with no pause you be hard pressed to catch such things on a first or second listen. While some might gripe about the auto-tune, it works well. “For Real” also has one of the highest replay values of any cuts on the album, the catchiest hook, and the most destructive of cadences.
Though the album is split evenly between features and solo tracks, each track remains Rittz at its core. Although part of that uniformity comes from his collaborating with people like Yelawolf (“Heaven”) and Big K.R.I.T. (“Wastin’ Time”), who, while extended family, make very similar sounding southernplayalisticmuzak.
The feature that will probably go slept on comes from Suga Free, who raps on “Sober,” a track dedicated to having sex for so long while intoxicated that you eventually become, well, sober. It sounds strange on paper, but works surprisingly well in practice. As per usual for Pomona’s number one player, the bullshit is nowhere in sight. Free spits straight pimp gospel.
The most glaring first album missteps, apart from the turbulent and frightening voice message that is “My Clothes,” are the two half-attempts at pop-crossovers, both of which feature Mike Posner. They aren’t inherently bad as far as relationship songs (“Always ‘Gon Be”) and cruising anthems (“Switch Lanes”) go, in that they don’t sacrifice too much of Rittz’s rapping or his aesthetic. However, the beats are definitely more palatable for the casual rap fan. And, really, it’s difficult to picture Posner riding around with a shotgun and a bottle of Hennessey (he did make this).
“Misery Loves Company” definitely takes cues from Tech N9Ne’s catalogue and Kaliko’s last solo record. The electronic, borderline dubstep noises paired with the ominous piano tickling and Iron Maiden-esque guitar riff all feel eerily like much of the stuff coming out of the Strange Music factory. While it’s a little melodramatic, a little over the top, that’s the case with much of the Strange Music camp—life and music equally on the edge, the argument from the extreme. You either empathize or ignore. .
But it’s clear that The Life and Times of Johnny Valiant is really Rittz through and through. He makes very few, if any sacrifices. It’s a first album in that it’s not perfect, but is still worth your time as an honest and deftly rapped portrayal of the struggle that, despite sometimes being a little too heavy, is a great listen. Really, it’s probably close to the album Yelawolf would’ve made had he not been under pressure from the folks at Interscope.
In the end, the album feels more like an excising of inner demons than a celebration of the first signs of success (signing to a label and touring). It’s not nearly as fun as White Jesus, but, then again, it’s not supposed to be. One gets the sense that Rittz feels as though this is his one chance to lay everything bare. For a guy who’s been rapping since ’04 (according to his lyrics), the urgency to unload all that happened in those years of obscurity are more than warranted. So, for now, Rittz is both anticipating the storm and still weathering it. Hopefully he’ll be more of household name by the time the next project comes around and will really be able to let his hair down.
ZIP: Rittz — White Jesus ZIP (left-click)