Welcome To CEO Trayle’s House Of Horrors
The Atlanta-based rapper on his expertly crafted breakout album HH5 and the trauma that haunts it
A couple months ago I was talking to a friend of mine – a casual rap fan – who claimed that younger rappers today don’t care about song-making and track sequencing like the rappers we grew up with did. Well, the rappers of the 2020s aren’t A&Rs; the idea is to plant your psyche into the puzzle of the musical project, forcing the listener to relate to the essential nature of man. A first listen of a new tape is often jumbled on purpose. In the era where the capacity to make a pristine mainstream album is harder as rap becomes more insular and regional, the aesthetics of what an album is supposed to sound like have changed. Rappers no longer work smart; they only work hard. Whatever happens after that depends on what catches a wave on social media.
Although he certainly takes from the forebears of the mixtape era – Gucci Mane to be exact – Alabama/Atlanta rapper CEO Trayle is the rare artist who cares about the formation of albums as we used to know it. His excellent October album HH5 – the fifth in his Happy Halloween series – is an exercise in lyricism, alter egos, and track sequencing. As soon as opening track “Sincerely Yours” hits, Trayle is giving you horrorcore in the realm of Three 6 Mafia. A syncretist of rap, Trayle has morphed disparate sounds into one, putting an update on legends into a Quality Control package.
HH5 is Trayle’s breakout, but it’s hardly his first excellent album. 2021’s Happy Halloween 4 has the exorcism of “NOLA Clap” and the lovestruck blues of “Jean Deaux Interlude.” Before the 2020 hit “OK Cool” earned him a loose affiliation with Young Thug’s YSL crew, Trayle went overlooked for the better part of a decade. But long before he edged into the spotlight, Trayle had developed the rubbery voice that narrates his current music, as slippery as walking on a hockey rink in boat shoes. He worked his way to this moment, and it was surprising that it didn’t happen sooner. Songs like “Percocet Pain,” featuring Detroit rapper Babyface Ray, were appetizers to the haunted house meal he is currently giving us.
When Trayle raps about murder, it comes from the perspective of a person who has been shot in a home invasion, who says he woke up to learn he’d killed his assailant. (It is unknown what year this happened. Trayle is mum on the subject). Trayle’s trauma is omnipresent in his music; it affects him in multiple ways – both in its rapping voice that sounds like the words of a drunken stupor or the fog from the cannabis he still frequently uses, the backdrop to his murderous raps.
As a vocalist, Trayle is spiky, mumbling like a toothbrush is in his mouth. But it is his writing that shines the brightest here. Most impressive about Trayle is his extraordinary ability to be detailed with his emotional acuity. Take “Chokehold,” a song about his drug use. Trayle raps, “I don’t shoot back, nigga I shoot first/ I don’t think I’m from this universe/ Bitch asked me why you do the Percs, said cause they’ll never leave.”
It’s rare to find a rapper trying to play subconscious characters in their music these days. Trayle does it with a casualness that is unnerving. Unlike Eminem’s use of Slim Shady, this roleplaying doesn’t attempt to be whimsical. Trayle’s alter ego, C4, is a violent pitbull. All he knows is violence – the main difference between him and Trayle. If Trayle is trying to protect his son, then C4 is committing burglary and holding the kid at gunpoint.
“Alter Ego 2” is a battle of the two minds. As C4, Trayle is a barker and a hypermasculine misogynist. It’s easily one of the best songs of last year, detailed in its execution but without opera and theater. Arriving nine tracks into HH5, it’s an example of Trayle’s astuteness in album crafting. Trayle casually sets you up for this dynamic and irreverent track with more schizophrenic but subdued songs before it. It’s a trick; it’s a wink. We’re building to this episode. The resulting album is what happens when a rapper takes the leap – the moment you shift from a cog in the cultural climate to a critical darling. Tell the old heads that there is a young man who cares about crafting albums.
I recently sat down with Trayle to talk about HH5, growing up down South, and what it was like getting shot during the home invasion robbery chronicled on last summer’s “July The Fourth.”
How did HH5 come together?
CEO TRAYLE: It didn’t come together until the last minute – the last song.
What got wrapped up last?
TRAYLE: What was the last song? “Took Some Time”? I wrapped that up a week before I had to turn it in. Then, I had three intros that people wanted to put. Then, I just kept making songs. “Song Cry” was my anthem, so I didn’t put it on the tape. When I made the tape, all of the songs just came together.
You seem to care about the track sequencing on an album more than your peers. What do you think of that?
TRAYLE: I just like to take my time to make sure everything flow together, no skips kinda vibe.
How important is the art of crafting albums to you in this data dump era?
TRAYLE: It’s important to me because something has to stick. Music is watered down, so it’s whoever can be the absolute best at the task.
What kind of space were you in?
TRAYLE: It was a challenging space. I was going through it. Going through shit mentally, emotionally. But I got money now. I used to be able to be straight mentally but I ain’t had no money. Now I got money.
What’s it like not having money?
TRAYLE: It is like problems that money can’t fix.
At the same time, how has your life gotten better?
TRAYLE: The main part would be finances being set. Nothing changed, but I got a lot of bands. And I am a real rapper too. I got a lot of love from HH5. Before, people heard of me and it was cool. Now the album has made it.
What’s it like living with the acclaim that’s come from HH5?
TRAYLE: It’s weird but it is what I signed up for so it is cool.
I heard you are cool with Metro Boomin. How did y’all meet?
TRAYLE: At this studio called 516. I shot a video with GT Films, and he took a liking to me because I was young. I was asking him who I could feature from, and he said he was locked in with Gucci and Ross. And I did a song with Cartel MGM, and one of things that GT told me was that I needed better beats. So they introduced me to Metro. This was before he was big. We met and locked in.
You were born in the Bronx. When did you move down South?
TRAYLE: I’ve been back and forth my whole life. I left for the South at like six or seven, then came back to the Bronx, then went back South again. Alabama first, and then Georgia.
What was Bama like?
TRAYLE: Treacherous. When people think of Bama, they think of racism and the country. But it is crazy out there. We got hella Black people. And [Birmingham] is a small country city. Everybody get into shit. Everyone knows everyone.
What was the craziest day you ever had in Alabama?
TRAYLE: I saw someone die at my door.
TRAYLE: I can’t speak on that. But I can tell you when someone threw a lit barbecue grill at someone’s house.
What the fuck? A lit barbecue? Explain.
TRAYLE: It was steaks and pork chops. It was lit. He threw the shit straight at someone in their house.
What was the context?
TRAYLE: It was like the lady who owned the grill was the candy lady. She was from Chicago, and Chicago is a real dominant place, so she had her own personality and attitude. If you from the South, you can tell a Chicago person. The attitude is real edgy. They came to the hood and were selling shit in the hood. I guess people felt they were taking too much money from them. I done seen niggas get shot, I saw the barbecue shit.
When you were in Alabama, was the racism so palpable in the air?
TRAYLE: Yeah. I was called a nigger my first day of school. When we moved to Birmingham, we lived in the hood at first. I was there for like three years in the hood. Then we moved to the suburbs with the white people in Pinson. The Black guys had two-parent homes and white kids had money. And in the first day of school, this kid looked at me and called me a nigger. He said, “We got a new nigger.” I went over there and beat the fuck out of his ass. I didn’t get suspended because he was considered a bully, obviously. His name was Bobby Thompson, I’ll never forget that guy. I beat the fuck out of him though.
What’s the reason for your alter ego?
TRAYLE: My mom asked me if I was a villain. I said not exactly, but I may do something villainous before the greater good. With Metro, I am a villain.
Why are you a villain?
TRAYLE: Because I am YSL and they paint us as the villain. So I go with the home team.
Do you remember why you had to move from New York?
TRAYLE: It wasn’t necessarily a reason. People are selling drugs, and it gets to the point where you can’t do it anymore. That’s what my mom did. She tried to give us a better life down South. A Southern hospitality.
Your mom was in the streets like that?
TRAYLE: Yep. My uncle is Rich Porter. They used to take my mom off the block and tell her to get in the house.
Can you talk about your experience getting shot?
TRAYLE: I didn’t even know I killed anybody until I woke up from the coma. All I knew was I was still alive and that I almost died. Life flashes before my eyes. It happened quick. You start realizing that, and do what you need to do instead of street shit.
It feels like it is a target on rappers’ backs more and more these days. How are you doing dealing with that?
TRAYLE: You gotta stay on your P’s and Q’s at the end of the day. And nowadays they’re not giving a pass to nobody – like everybody’s really equal. Back then, you would get a pass from the street if you rapped but that is no longer. I already went through the motions of having somebody try to come to my house and kill me. Just because you are a celebrity, no one is going to spare you. You’ll be the coolest person in the world and you’ll still get stuck in the crossfire. That’s it.
HH5 is out now on Do What You Love/10K Projects.