All Bets Off

Artist: JUICETitle: All Bets OffRating: 3 1/2 StarsReviewed by: Christopher Scav Yuscavage

Being the only man walking the Earth to have defeated Eminem in a freestyle battle definitely has its advantages – just ask Chicago rhyme-spitter JUICE, whose claims to fame include defeating Slim Shady in a mind-numbing off-the-top battle and losing gracefully to the voice-changing Supernatural in their classic Wake Up Show battle in the mid-‘90s. Without an official album to his name, JUICE held down the Windy City for nearly a decade with his clever wordplay and witty punchlines before a certain “college dropout” breezed through and resurrected the same town with his own chipmunk soul-sampled debut album. A year later, and JUICE hopes to use the Chi-Town resurgence to his benefit with his debut solo album All Bets Off (Conglomerate Records), a side-stepping offering from JUICE that shrugs away his freestyling persona and presents a refurbished version of the post-battling JUICE.

“I distribute my own CD, F**k you, this is a tribute only to me,” JUICE selfishly bombasts on “J.U.I.C.E.,” a self-titled track which sees the embattled rapper taking aim at those expecting anymore free-of-charge wordy treats from the lyrical legend. “I’ll admit, I got a bit of a male ego, Test me in a crowd, you get shot like 12 free throws,” he continues on the next track, “Money,” where he audibly compares his every movement to the green-backed currency.

As All Bets Off persists, however, it becomes clear that JUICE has taken off the backpack that some might expect him to don and hopped aboard the commercial money train – which may not suit the diehard underground, but certainly expands upon JUICE’s ever-growing ability to rock a microphone. “Sick of Hustlin’” breaks down JUICE’s disdain for the street life as he details the ‘hood imagery of drug deals going down right outside on the block. While the tales are certainly nothing new in Hip-hop, JUICE’s topic-based raps are a far cry from his previous freestyles, opening up new doors to the portal that is JUICE’s mind. “Now ‘til my eyes are closed and my casket drops, I swear never again will I rap for props,” JUICE raps on “Power,” a clear sign that he has left the “freestyles for free” in the past and focused on the money and power, first and foremost.

Still, even with a changed attitude and money-first motto, JUICE does not seem to stray far from his roots on several lyrical cuts (“All U Got,” “I Rap Like”) that epitomize the hunger and drive that made him Chicago’s most anticipated for so many pre-Kanye years. And his happy-go-lucky Generation X anthem “We Made It,” riddled by soft airy production from Meanwhile and Conglomerate mainstay Emmaculate, reasserts that JUICE is far from bitter or angry about his oft-overlooked talents. Even when JUICE takes All Bets Off to the club (“All Bets Off”) or into the bedroom (“Weekend Girl”), the lyrics stay effortless, though the tracks might try a little too hard to break JUICE out of his usually hardcore shell.

All Bets Off, simply put, is a gamble designed by JUICE to follow-up on America’s recent infatuation with Chicago emcees and a solid attempt at broadening his fan base. Putting all his chips into the middle of the table is not something that will play well into the hands of the underground, but getting up from the table should be easier for one of the “illest freestyle n----s on the planet” this time around. Either way, going “all in” rarely sounds this good.