Better than you know
If Petey Pablo’s Still Writin’ in My Diary: 2nd Entry came out tomorrow, it would be a pretty big deal, at least in our little internet corner of the universe. It would’ve already leaked about a week ago, and we’d all be arguing about how good it was. But two years ago, it was allowed to come out and then slip into obscurity without much critical fuss at all. It was a pretty big album, and it had one of the biggest singles of the year in “Freek-A-Leek,” which might be the worst song on the album. More to the point, it was a great album, a stylistically diverse but thematically consistent effort from a raspy-voiced demon who was just figuring out exactly how good he was. The snarling club tracks are impeccable, and a few of the guest verses are almost unbelievably fierce, but there’s an undercurrent of sad introspection running through the whole thing. It’s a powerful piece of work from a popular rapper, but it still faded away without too many of us noticing, which meant that those of us who did stumble across it, who maybe bought used copies a few months after it came out, got to feel like we were in on a secret, something that everyone else missed out on even though it was right under their noses. That wouldn’t happen now; the internet rap community has grown to the point where it’s a lot harder for stuff to slip through the cracks. Professional blogs like this one and the XXL blogs are relatively new developments, and we’re too hungry for content to let a great album go unmentioned. (There are also a whole lot fewer great albums coming out this year, but that’s another story.) It’s a good thing; we’re able to press labels to finally release the albums from favorites like Clipse and Killer Mike, and a few people who would’ve never been motivated to give Lil Wayne the time of day might’ve picked up copies of The Carter II. But it also means that it’s a lot rarer to come across an album that feels like a personal secret. There’s still underground rap coming out of course; plenty of backpack-rap types and obscure regional stars with no major-label muscle are putting out material that never bubbles up out of the scenes that spawn them. But there’s less of a sense that undiscovered masterpieces are just sitting out there waiting for someone to come along and discover them.
Now, it’s not like no one’s talking about Trae‘s Restless; guys like Noz and Matt Sonzala have been repping for the album. But Restless is a masterful piece of work, and it hasn’t really made its way into the outside world the way it deserves to. Trae is a hero in Houston; he’s Z-Ro’s cousin and a Screwed Up Click veteran, and he’s already released a ton of underground albums even though he’s still young. Now he’s got an album out on Rap-A-Lot just as that label’s found distribution through Asylum and Warner Brothers and as it’s released relatively high-profile solo albums from Bun B and Pimp C. But it’s still damn near impossible to find up here in New York. It wasn’t available on Amazon until recently, and it’s still not on iTunes. Good luck finding it in any of this city’s bafflingly shitty record stores. And that’s a real shame; it’s about the best example of post-Scarface dark melodicism that’s come out in the past couple of years.
Restless is a Houston album in the classical sense; it’s got the same corrosively bleak humidity as The Fix or To Tha X-Treme or Ridin’ Dirty. There’s plenty of talk about candy paint, but it’s still at a long remove from the sunny, synthed-up stuff that all the Swisha House alumni have been pushing on us lately. But it’s not an underground album at all. It touches on most of the fill-in-the-blank pandering that’s on every commercial rap album these days (the car song, the thug-love song, all that stuff), but it does it without ever compromising its aesthetic, and Trae manages to get shockingly decent guest appearances out of no-talents like Yung Joc and Mya. In fact, it reminds me more of Beanie Sigel‘s The B.Coming than any other recent rap album. Trae doesn’t sound anything like Beanie, and the two albums’ production aesthetics are totally different, but they both have a similar ambient air of overwhelming bitterness and regret; even when Beanie and Trae are bragging or talking shit, they both sound like there’s nothing happy in the world, like nothing good could ever happen to them.
I downloaded the album, so I don’t know who did all the production, but it’s mostly the kind of gorgeously woozy eeriness that Rap-A-Lot house producers come up with when they’re feeling particularly inspired. “Real Talk” turns layers of chopped-up Iron Maiden guitars and Phil Collins synths into a percolating haze. The title track is built on the sort of windswept Southern-soul string sample that DJ Paul and Juicy J slathered all over Most Known Unknowns. “The Rain” is built on a weepy acoustic guitar pattern, the sort of thing Plan B might come up with if he ever becomes a really good guitar player. “Cadillac” buries a wispy flute melody in a miles-deep decaying synth-bass. There’s a lot of variation in the album’s production, but it’s all atmospheric and slow-creeping, sort of what the next Portishead album might sound like if they’ve actually spent the last ten years listening to rap. And it’s a perfect bed for Trae’s thick, raspy mumble.
Trae mentions on one song that he’s 24 years old. If that’s true, it’s pretty amazing; he sounds like he’s about twice that age. His voice is never very high in the mix, so it always sounds like it’s bubbling right under the track, like he’s always been a part of it. Lyrically, he has a lot of stuff about cars and beating you up, but he’s at his best when he’s lamenting his own lack of fame (“I don’t even feel part of nothing; it’s been that way from the git / One of the realest, but I still end up the last-round draft pick”) or shouting out the people who’ve gotten him to the point where he can lament his lack of fame (“Even though my brother gone, I still got a couple more / That I live and represent for, even though it never show”). That cloudy, relentless depression comes into sharp focus when the posthumous verses from Fat Pat and HAWK come along. HAWK must’ve been murdered just after recording his part in the “Swang” video; try not to get goosebumps when he says “Pop my trunk for Fat Pat’s death / I would give my last breath if I could bring you back / Bring Screw back, matter fact, bring the whole crew back.” Trae shouts out those guys constantly over the course of the album; it’s like the whole thing was recorded under the shadow of death. It’s a troubling, haunting, beautiful piece of work. People should hear it.