Trae Cool

An underground legend teams up with Rap-A-Lot in a bid to break nationwide

Today's a big day at the office, the listening session to launch Trae's Restless. A few dozen DJs (of both the club and radio variety), promoters, publicists and journalists are herded into a sort of rec room, where we are wined and dined with soda pop, chicken wings and onion rings. (I'm thinking the evening's theme is " ÔSwang,' wangs, rangs and thangs.") We are also treated to a promotional DVD of Trae touting Restless at clubs and in the streets of downtown by night.

After about half an hour of this, Trae's manager appears and hands out listener response sheets. On them, we are asked to rate the beats and lyrics of each of the tracks on a scale ranging from "Wack" to "Hit." And then we're away -- we're introduced to a track, we listen, we deduct the wackitude-to-hititude ratio, the manager introduces another, and repeat. (For what it's worth, the track "Cadillac," which features Three Six Mafia, is a good bet for a follow-up single.)

Then the manager comes out and thanks all for coming, as does a Rap-A-Lot executive. (J. Prince couldn't attend.) The Rap-A-Lot guy jokes that everybody should meet up later at a northside strip club -- "Anybody who wanna go to Harlem Knights, just let me know. I got y'all. Just let me know. But we'll only be in the parking lot -- we ain't gonna go in..."

Trae will always ride for his people.
Trae will always ride for his people.

Last, Trae himself appears, thanks us all, signs some glossies, and the crowd disperses. Someone hands Trae a lean, three-year-old boy with cornrows and ringlets, presumably Trae's son. The boy is crying his eyes out -- an ear infection, Trae thinks. The boy quiets down as soon as his head hits Trae's shoulder. Trae comforts the boy some more, and we take a seat on a couch in the Rap-A-Lot lobby and talk for a few minutes.

Trae is very much in keeping with Rap-A-Lot's high standards -- they're the street-tough steak to the rest of H-town's blinged-out sizzle. His rhymes are packed with authenticity, and he's skilled on the mike. When he wants to be, Trae ranks with Z-Ro and Twista as one of the fastest rappers alive. What's more, there's a method to his machine-gun madness; he spits his breathy and serpentine rhymes so fast that his words will sound especially dope on slowed-down tracks. He still sounds fast on screwed stuff, but he's easier to understand; meanwhile, a different class of fans -- those who don't sip syrup -- consider him a rapid-fire virtuoso.

Count Trae among those who don't partake -- of syrup or anything else, for that matter. "I take life head-on," he says. "I want to face things when they hit me right then and there. Each person's got they own preference for why they do what they do; mine is to deal with everything for what it is."

While Mike Jones, Slim Thug, Lil' Flip and Paul Wall -- four of the biggest names from Houston's hitmaking class of 2005 -- all now have legions of vociferous haters, on the Internet and elsewhere, Trae is damn near universally respected, especially at street level. "I say the truth about the streets," he says. "I been out here a long time. I seen a lot -- a lotta bad things happened in my eyesight. I've seen and did a lot more things than most people."

Granted, you hear braggadocio like that from almost every rapper, but in Trae's case it's the hard, cold truth. At age 11, Trae witnessed the killing of a family friend, a young girl Trae describes as more of a sister. When Trae hit 12, his brother Dinky was given three life sentences. A couple of years later, Trae himself did time for aggravated robbery.

And there's anecdotal evidence, too: A guy once tried to sell me a home-burned CD that prominently featured Trae's music -- on a Metro bus. (Doesn't get more street than that.) One of the few local artists with as much ghetto cred as Trae is Z-Ro, his cousin and longtime partner in rhyme. Although Z-Ro appears on one song ("No Help") on Restless, he and Trae are still at odds. "We made that track a long time ago," he says. While Trae won't talk about why he and Z-Ro are on the outs, a hint comes later in the interview: Z-Ro is headed back to prison for a parole violation, and Trae's younger brother was caught up in the drama. "They hit the case together," he says. "And they both going to jail."

But Trae could be headed elsewhere: to a brand-new level of national fame.

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