For decades, Houston has been its own rap planet. There are Houston rappers who have legend status outside their city, like Scarface or UGK, the latter of whom actually come from the not-that-nearby town of Port Arthur. But Houston also has local legends with barely any profile in the rest of the world. Z-Ro and Lil Keke and the late Fat Pat might be mere cult figures in most of the country; in Texas, they’re rap gods. Houston has its own rap economy, its own subgenres and geographical dividing lines and aesthetic signifiers. And it’s a rap scene with a deep bench. When Houston rap had a weird commercial boom about 10 years ago, with major labels trying to snatch up every buzzing rapper from the city, part of the appeal was that these guys had self-sufficiently built up their own independent audiences and that they should be able to move seamlessly into nationwide stardom. It didn’t happen. Houston rappers had hits, but once they found the national stage, guys like Chamillionaire and Mike Jones relied too hard on gimmicks or bad ideas, and they couldn’t make fame stick. But those guys are all still around and still rapping, and they still get treated like figures of importance in Houston. It’s hard to imagine anything like that mid-’00s moment happening again, since major-label signing frenzies appear to be things of the past. But things seem to be moving in Houston rap again. The city has cranked out a couple of tracks that have blown up outside Texas, and a pair of recent mixtapes show that there’s a whole lot more where those came from.
Chedda Da Connect’s “Flicka Da Wrist” is one of those street-rap rumblers that slowly builds steam and turns out to be everywhere as soon as you really register its presence. Other than maybe the slow, soupy atmosphere of the song, there’s nothing specifically Houston about it, even if Chedda is from Houston. Instead, he’s taking other things floating out there in the ether — Lil B’s cooking dance and “woo! woo!” adlib, Migos’ strained-triplet flow — and turned them into something catchy enough to get stuck in your head forever. T-Wayne’s “Nasty Freestyle” is a little more specific to Houston; it’s got a loopy sense of melody and enough goofy punchlines to remind me of Paul Wall and Chamillionaire’s dork-rap classic Get Ya Mind Correct, an album I love more than I probably should. T-Wayne’s mixtapes have nothing on Chamillionaire’s; when I die please remind someone to carve “I’m tryna grab some new Js, if Foot Locker ain’t got ‘em / I’ma grab the store clerk and drop him with the Rock Bottom” into my tombstone. But the way it came out of nowhere — an actual freestyle over someone else’s track barnstorming its way into the Billboard top 10 thanks to Vine and YouTube — speaks to the kind of cult success that’s been a part of Houston rap since forever. “Flicka Da Wrist” and “Nasty Freestyle” are fun, catchy songs, even if they’re not lifechangers or anything. And maybe tracks like those will help draw attention to some of the other things happening in Houston’s underground right now.
Things like Beatking. Beatking has been a Houston fixture for a few years, a big motherfucker with a huge, booming voice who raps enthusiastically and almost exclusively about strippers. Beatking made his name rapping over beats that sampled viral Worldstar vidoes, and even if he’s not doing that on his new 3AM In Houston mixtape, he does show a healthy respect for novelty, rapping over the X-Files theme music or turning Silkk The Shocker and Mystikal’s “It Ain’t My Fault” into “That Ain’t My Thot.” Beatking puts a ton of energy into his pimp persona, but he’s just as much of a rap dork, weaving in little pieces of and references to old songs in his music. And he knows how to use his voice, staying right in the beat’s pocket but still enunciating hard enough that you can make out every word he’s saying. He’s got a very particular rap skill that’s important for someone making bass-heavy rider music like Houston rap: Even when you’ve got the bass in your car turned up all the way and it’s got your rearview mirror vibrating and your windshield rattling, you can still hear what he’s saying. And he’s funny. On one song: “What you know about running out of ones, so you throwing hundreds?” Then, on another song, a few tracks later: “If I said I’m throwing money in a song, then I’m lying.” For all the time Beatking spends shouting out Houston legends, his whole persona owes as much to Redd Foxx or Blowfly as it does to any rapper. He comes off like an unreconstructed misogynist, but his last tape was Underground Cassette Tape Music, a full-length collaboration with Gangsta Boo, and that marked the beginning of a comeback for one of the greatest and most underappreciated female rappers ever. I don’t know if that gives him a free pass to rap about wanting to fuck your roommate all day, but he’s so good at rapping about wanting to fuck your roommate. 3AM In Houston isn’t quite as strong as Underground Cassette Tape Music, one of my favorite mixtapes from last year, but it’s still an unhealthy amount of fun.
Also an unhealthy amount of fun: Sauce Theft Auto, the new mixtape from South Houston duo Sauce Twinz and their associate Sosamann. Together, these three come off like a rougher, more chaotic Migos. They rap a little slower, something thrown into relief when the real Migos show up on “On Top.” But they’ve got that same rangy energy, throwing their voices all around the track and repeating phrases over and over until they become pure meaningless sound. On certain tracks, like “Luv Me” and “Off The Splash,” the Twinz lose their center completely, just screaming into the void, barely trying to control their voices. On others, like the spectacular Boosie Badazz collab “OMS,” they turn that energy toward making taught, springy hooks. On songs like that, they never quite explode, but they always seem poised to do just that. Like Houston 3AM, Sauce Theft Auto is too long; both tapes have 19 tracks, which is at least seven too many. But like Houston 3AM, it’s also exceptional car music, with bass threatening to tear your vehicle to pieces and Sosamann and the Twinz coming up with enough ridiculous lines and ways to deliver them to keep your attention. (I especially like the verse of “My Hoe Now” that just strings together a whole lot of Mortal Kombat references.) And as much as it reminds me of Migos, this is still a distinctly Texan tape, with the rappers doing that churchy, declarative cadence that only Houston rappers seem to be able to do right.
Sauce Twinz have been in the rap-blog news a bit lately for calling out Drake, claiming that he’s constantly shouting out Texas and staging Houston Appreciation Weekends without recording songs with actual Houston rappers. Predictably, there’s some bitterness there; Drake apparently promised to jump on a Sauce Twinz remix and then never did. But it’s true that people like Drake and A$AP Rocky have made Houston aesthetics big parts of their music, and it would make a whole lot of sense if actual Houston rappers weren’t too thrilled about that. Still, Houston has things happening right now. It’s a city in good hands, and we could be seeing the beginnings of another boom.
1. Jay Rock – “Money Trees Deuce”
It seems maybe a tiny bit desperate for a rapper to make a sequel to a big song that wasn’t even his song, just a song he had a verse on. But Jay Rock sounds amazing getting all gruff and unpretentious over a hazed-out summertime loop like this. If he has to remind everyone that he’s friends with Kendrick to get them to pay attention, fair enough.
2. White Gzus – “Big”
This Chicago duo is the type of group who sneaks up on you. They make ridiculously solid low-key rap music that never demands your attention, even if the way this chorus samples an 8Ball & MJG classic is a sort of rap-nerd dog whistle. A whole mixtape like this would sound really good this summer.
3. Iamsu! – “Dipped When They See Me” (Feat. Chippa$)
Iamsu! always sounds his best when he’s in party mode rather than introspective mode, although there’s always at least a hint of introspection in even his party songs. This one flips the Aaliyah track that flipped a Rakim quote, making it a rare 720 flip. It also has Iamsu! happily stealing Mannie Fresh’s late-’90s flow (with attribution), which everyone should steal.
4. Trae Tha Truth – “I Don’t Give A Fuck” (Feat. Rick Ross)
Oh hey, more Texas! Trae has been saying the same things over and over on songs for almost the past decade, but his bluesily gorgeous sung hooks and his breathlessly gruff double-time mean it’s fun to hear every single time. I’d rather see him rapping alongside his cousin Z-Ro than rapping alongside Rick Ross, but the latter is more likely to get him on the radio, so fair enough.
5. Travi$ Scott – “3500” (Feat. Future & 2 Chainz)
An here’s another Texan, though Scott isn’t exactly working within his hometown’s rap culture. With eight minutes and five producers, this song is doing too much, and I don’t think Scott has really earned this level of indulgence. But that 2 Chainz verse is champion status: “I do the shit that you dreamed of / I was born with a mean mug / I was born with some nappy hair, drinking breast milk out a lean cup.”
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Kanye's set https://t.co/maK2121Cz0
— Desus Nice (@desusnice) June 8, 2015