ouston rapper Trae talks about cash and violence, but on Restless, his debut for regional powerhouse Rap-A-Lot, reality hovers uncomfortably close to the fantasy. Take, for instance, “Swang,” the album’s lead single. After the first verse runs through a litany of standard Southern hip-hop concerns, guest rapper H.A.W.K. liquefies the car talk into a spine-tingling elegy for his murdered brother. The beat drops out, the grinding bass disappears and alone amidst the nebulous synth swells, H.A.W.K. whispers, “Swang and I swang and I swang to the left / Pop my trunk for Fat Pat’s death.”
The track lurches, and as the beat kicks back in, H.A.W.K. proclaims himself Pat’s clone, promises to carry on his legacy, and swears he’d give his last breath to resurrect the rapper. Shortly after recording his verse, H.A.W.K. also became a victim of homicide. His death, among the myriad others that Trae has seen take place, are specters haunting Restless. That he dwells on this fact, rather than ignoring it, makes it such a fascinating, mournful album.
Texas’ most successful acts, whether hit makers like Paul Wall and Mike Jones or respected veterans like U.G.K., deliver their songs like slick Southern car salesman, genial good ol’ boys who are never short of charm or a clever turn of phrase. Trae has none of the freewheeling charisma of these good-time hucksters. Along with Lil’ Keke, his cousin Z-Ro and multiple other local luminaries, he is a member of the DJ Screw-founded Screwed Up Click, and if anything, these lesser lights are a more vital component of the city’s rap culture, part of the seething mass of mixtape rappers bubbling just beneath the surface.
But while Trae’s music has a bleak grittiness not shared by his more successful contemporaries, his record is nonetheless carved from the same mold. His lyrics touch on all the Houston talking-points: drank gets sipped, hoes bop, and candy paint drips. Restless is at its best, though, when Trae unleashes his hardened reflections on hood life, such as the emotional tribute to friends and family “Dedicated 2 You.” To be fair, Trae is just as compelling popping his trunk, showing the diamonds on his teeth and riding in his Sedan Deville. But with him, driving slow through city streets isn’t so much a flamboyant exhibition of wealth as it is an affirmation of local culture and local heroes. “Cadillac,” for instance, is a celebratory Southern tour-de-force, with a number of Texas stalwarts joining Trae and Three 6 Mafia to celebrate the American car industry, each more inventively than the last. When Paul Wall shows up for the final verse to do what he does best—that is, tell us how great his possessions are—accompanied by gleaming synths, the track is confirmed as one of the year’s best singles.
For the most part, though, the album’s production, usually consisting of synth moans over trunk-rattling programmed beats, is grim and oppressive, even when lightened with soul samples or R&B vocals. “Intro” consists of brooding, drawn out strings and Trae’s rhymes flickering in and out like a transmission from a distant planet. It’s as if his mere arrival is a struggle. But when he does, on the first song proper, “Real Talk,” the track bursts into life with frenetic, out-of-control guitar notes and Trae spitting fire through the murk. He mutters in a low, urgent voice, his rasp skittering between the beats, sounding like hurried instructions whispered into the ear of a confidante.
This is regional rap, steeped in local culture, but Trae has managed to create one of the year’s finest rap albums, not by neglecting the peculiarities of his city’s music, but by using these local idiosyncrasies to create a unified, considered statement. His peers’ larger audience may elude him, but in a year when quality rap albums have taken a backseat to ill-focused full-lengths arriving on the back of great singles, he certainly deserves to be more than a footnote in a regional scene.
Reviewed by: Jonathan Bradley
Reviewed on: 2006-10-26