Trick Daddy Keeps It Ugly

Bbtdlarge.jpgPossibly his most ungainly album title yet

Trick Daddy is sort of a national treasure. Over ten years and seven albums, his warm, gravelly slur has deepend and expanded to the point where he sounds more like David Ruffin or John Lee Hooker than like any rapper I could name. His rasp has a lived-in smokiness, and its crags and wrinkles say as much as his words. Every album except his first has had the word thug somewhere in its title, and he's always done violent threats as well as almost anyone else, but my favorite parts of all his albums are the ones where he drops the hard veneer and comes off like a big-hearted drunk uncle, doing gorgeously hamfisted and charming inspirational kids' songs. When he digs into that stuff, he becomes a glorious anomaly. Thug Matrimony, his last album, had more than a handful of these, and they're some of the happiest, most genuine things I've ever heard an uber-hard rapper do. On songs like "I Wanna Sing," his idealism shines through with blinding force. "I ain't the typical American Idol / But when I'm done, I'm sure the boy Simon would like me": I'm pretty sure no other major rapper could sell a line like that one with such total sincerity, not a drop of irony in his voice. And other than maybe Ludacris, he's the only rapper who consistently does great things with Jazze Pha beats; Trick sinks into them and finds an organic glow in all the autotuned guitars and bloopy synths. I've never seen the episode of The John Mayer Show where he and Mayer go to Nashville to seek out their shared country-music roots, but I love that it exists, that a rapper like Trick would acknowledge that he even has any country roots. The great thing about Trick Daddy is the way he makes his warmth and his coldness inseparable; his death-threat sneers grant him the credibility he needs to give his fluffy kids-are-the-future meditations, and those in turn give his dark tracks a certain gravitas. He also loves doing freaky sex-jams, and those don't particularly require credibility or gravitas, but they're fun all the same.

So it's a bit disappointing that his new one sinks so hard into kill-you snarls at the expense of everything else. Part of the difference is purely aesthetic; since the release of Thug Matrimony, the sound of Florida rap has changed, moving away from the twerked-up post-bounce plastic synth squiggles into the overwhelmingly monolithic epic blares of producers like the Runners. The Runners only contribute a couple of tracks to Back By Thug Demand, but their influence is all over the place; even reliably frisky beatmakers like Mannie Fresh seem to be playing catch-up. Those bloated tracks don't leave a whole lot of room for humanity or personality; Rick Ross, who can't rap, sounds a lot more at home on this type of beat than Trick Daddy, who can. Trick spends a lot of time establishing his own bona fides, and he does it well: "I ran the street with goons / I broke the rules with fools / I used to take my motherfucking tool to school." But nihilism's not a good fit for him, so this sneering battle-rap stuff works best when he lets something goofy slip through: "I love aggressive music / I smoke, I listen to it." And when he starts comparing diamonds with Baby, I can't bring myself to give a fuck.

But Trick does manage to squeeze some utterly crushing bursts of humanity amidst all the gun-talk. Musically, "Born a Thug" is tenth-generation G-funk with tense strings and trebly flutes, and it starts out like a celebration of the criminal lifestyle: "His mama was a G / And daddy was a G / And nothing left for him but to be a thug." But when the song's actual story starts, Trick gives a harrowing account of a kid's life, depicting the ghetto as a prison and situating crack-dealing as an unavoidable consequence of a corrupt system: "Now just imagine the role of a 13-year-old who's playing head of his household / Now that shit's cold, but then again, I suppose you know how this shit go." He ends the song encouraging parents to talk to their kids, and all of a sudden a boilerplate corner memoir becomes a PSA. And "10-20-Life," lyrically and structurally, is a close relative of Ludacris's corrupted-youth lament "Runaway Love," except that Trick's song is actually much more pointedly observed and futher-reaching in its depiction of cycles of poverty and violence. But "Runaway Love" comes with all the standard signifiers of the token sensitive song: the swishing chimes, the phone-voice delivery, the R&B chorus. If you're not listening closely, "10-20-Life" sounds like a standard crack-rap song, Trick's growl firmly intact and Goldrush's beat built from ominous piano thumps and low horn-blasts. The weirdest thing about that is that Trick knows how to make a song's sound match up beautifully with his message, and he goes the stealth route instead, which creates a vague impression that he's celebrating the song's violence at the same time as he's decrying it. I don't know what's changed in the past two years, why Trick is flattening out his sound while he slyly keeps his subject-matter wide-open. If the pressures of the marketplace are keeping Trick from making another album as gorgeous as Thug Matrimony, we're in trouble.

Voice review: Frank Kogan on Trick Daddy's Thugs Are Us Voice review: Kelefa Sanneh on Trick Daddy's Book of Thugs: Chapter A.K., Verse 47

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