The Curious Case of the People's Champ

Paul Wall is neither a cartoon nor an asshole.

When you call Paul Wall's cell phone and he doesn't answer, the automatic voice mail picks up, as automatic voice mails are wont to do:

"The mailbox belonging to 'Whut it dew?' is full and cannot accept new messages at this time."

Yes. "Whut it dew?" Wall recorded his signature catchphrase in place of his name. And it's not like it's the voice mail of his media phone or fan phone and he's posturing. He only keeps the one phone, the same one his family and friends call when they want to get to him.

Take Notes: Paul Wall raps more effectively on new album Heart of a Champion than he has in almost a decade.
Take Notes: Paul Wall raps more effectively on new album Heart of a Champion than he has in almost a decade.

The situation is proof positive that Wall is either the most brilliant, most dedicated business mind Houston rap has ever seen, a man who built a million-dollar brand out of thin air, or a complete asshole.

Wall is one of the more engaging hip-hop personas in Houston and an extremely likable human being. He smiles a lot, seems cognizant of his ranking within music's perpetually shifting hierarchy and tells normal-guy stories about liking baseball, being married or going to Target to buy stuff for his kids.

But Wall is also one of Houston rap's more unintentionally polarizing personas. Critics are generally of the mind that he's either a buffoon or a mastermind. And directly and indirectly, right or wrong, that's mostly because of one reason: He's white.

If Wall is a buffoon, that's an easy peg. He's a cartoon character, a mascot, a walking stereotype that purposely epitomizes the foibles of Southern rap culture for his own gain. That's a particularly perilous place to dangle, because even though they're two separate things, Southern rap culture often gets confused with Southern black culture.

It's the same type of criticism that's been lobbed at guys like Master P, Juvenile or any other rapper who captures the affection of his city. Wall's whiteness only intensifies and confounds the situation.

Example: In 2008, a video surfaced on the Web of a drunk Wall saying, "Money talks. I'll do an album with Pee-wee Herman if the money's right, baby." He had the Internet going nuts; people hated that he said that. He might as well have burned down a church.

But why? Because he verbalized rap's tie to commercialism? Scarface did a song with boxer Roy Jones Jr. in 2002. You think he did it because he was ­really feeling Jones's musicality?

In essence, Wall is not doing anything unexpected or even mildly offensive — the infatuation with materialism, slowed-to-an-almost-slur rap speech, cars and jewelry are all apropos of the market. But because Wall is white, then clearly he can't just naturally be like that.

White people are all one way, black people are all another way and all rappers are black. Duh. And that means Wall's persona is an unnatural, uncomfortable-to-watch act, an exploitation of the most egregious measure. Which means he's an asshole.

But it takes only about six minutes with Wall, whose mother was a schoolteacher for 20-plus years, to recognize that his being a buffoon (or some sort of covert bigot) is highly unlikely.

Which leads to the second option: ­Mastermind.

If so, that's an easy peg too. Wall is the only white rapper of significance to come out of the South, which should be lauded. And he did it without playing up the novelty shtick like Bubba Sparxxx tried, which should be deified.

Wall never bothered to address his race because a) he felt like it didn't matter because it wasn't a lifestyle that he adopted, it was something that he grew up in so why should he have to explain that, which makes sense; or b) he understood that most people see Southern rap culture and Southern black culture as synonymous, so he proactively chose to completely ignore the situation rather than have his words bumbled around.

That makes sense too. Either way, Wall's hustle is unimpeachable. He enacted a business plan and executed it absolutely.

Paul Wall is, inarguably, one of the most important rappers to come out of Houston. His résumé from 2005 alone assures that. He understands that, and he'll even say as much if you ask him about it directly. He'll never beat his chest about it, though — he's more likely to do the opposite, actually.

In 2009, Wall had a teeny onscreen role in blogger Tucker Max's I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell playing, basically, a parody of himself — a rapper named Grillionaire: "I don't touch nothing smaller than a $20, yo, 'cause George Washington smells like poverty, ho."

He had an even smaller role in this year's VH1 Hip-Hop Honors show, showing up only to flash a diamond-y smile and make a karats-as-carrots simile. Wall explained it as hyperbole for the sake of humor and education.

He's endlessly self-aware. And — save the two "I'm fresher than a peppermint" lines — his newest album, Heart of a Champion, is an articulate representation of that.

All talk about the songs seems to gravitate back to one central point:

"It seems like it's always about a catchy hook or catchy beat," says Wall. "That's what people talk about. But I love making music. That's what people overlook. That's what I loved about working with Travis." (That's Travis Barker, Blink-182/Transplants drummer, noted hip-hop fan and Wall's good friend.)

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