“I swear to God,” Easy Yves Saint repeats on “Don’t Panic,” the title track of his brand-new album. “I swear to God.” It’s not the sort of religious calisthenics one makes when trying to make amends or hammer home honesty. At least not in Yves’s case. The Queens rapper turned Houston everyman with the Adidas tracksuit only swears to the Lord for one given reason: to be heard. “Frankly, I’m disappointed.”
In the years since The Niceguys were the toast of Houston rap, the group has splintered into a flurry of side projects. What became a hiatus seems relatively permanent. YeaFree is in Los Angeles, ambassador for a cereal bar and resident DJ who still creates ambient production and singles for himself. Xtolph is still producing in Houston but has a newfound passion for a web series centered around food and music; think Action Bronson’s Fuck, That’s Delicious!, only with far greater comedy and dry humor that cannot be replicated. Candlestick, the group’s resident DJ, has found his name mentioned in The FADER and other magazines as one of the state’s more prominent DJs and caretakers of DJ Screw's legacy.
Then there’s Yves. He’s still a motormouth but less verbal than he was, say, around The Show and James Kelley. Even on Sincerely Yves, he shed the “Easy” and “Saint” names from his rap moniker and stuck to being himself. The EP was well-received but not received enough. So Yves lay low, returning to his weekly hosting gig at AvantGarden and sporadically releasing tracks on Soundcloud. The Niceguys were a movement, and now everyone's moved on to create something else.
Yves's demeanor on Don’t Panic is far more careful. As an album, it’s a 43-minute barnburner where every production twist — samples, slapping — means something. Yves’s rapping ability was never about dick jokes or caustically revealing far too much about his personal life. He discusses regrets, the dysfunction of having to prove himself yet again to people who didn’t get it. Houston is filled with rappers like this. Yves is one of the very few who know they’re rappers hell-bent on enjoying the art of rapping. Proving it to an audience has been one of his main crutches.
Most of that sentiment gets washed away here. “I don’t know how to write a hit but I know how to hit a lick,” he confesses on the jarring “Always Official.” “Go so hard I got issues.” He’s been as loyal as he can be to artists and supporters alike. He could drag himself to repenting, letting his ego subside into a funnel of apologies, but what would that get him? Nothing that would satisfy his hunger. “God, you know it’s hard judging by the moves I’ve been making.”
Yves’s rapping sprees, when he lowers his head and retorts whatever tongue-twisting couplet that popped into his head, have become his calling card. On “Sandbox,” a flip of Suzanne Vega's “Tom’s Diner,” he blacks out for a solid 15 seconds before coming up for air to point out, “You just screaming ‘Danger’ like you Mystikal.” Moments later, he shifts with a boxer’s pivot, counter-punching celebrating his bona fides while looking over at right-hand man Tubo and saying through tears, “I’m afraid of karma.” Yves can find dalliances and trysts, or spoil his woman, so much it becomes a marathon for him. Similar to that guy from Brooklyn who allegedly lost 92 bricks and bounced back, he fears the worst if things reach a breaking point.
By the time he shakes out of it, there’s “The Same,” a chest-puffing anthem where Jack Freeman can float on the chorus and Dylan Cohl can backdoor a Le$ verse with a similar pathos in regards to keeping it honest. Milling over a busy sample of the SOS Band’s “Tell Me,” Yves laughs at shit as if he’s ready to toast to his enemies’ mistakes. “Niggas act like bitches, think they prettier than bitches/ Hang with niggas for they riches/ Postin’ bottles on they Insta/ They ain’t eatin’, they ain’t got it/ They just got to do the dishes.” For good reason maybe, “The Same” is the lone track with featured guests. Sadly, though, it is not a direct sequel to 2010’s “Things Ain’t the Same.”
The best moments of Don’t Panic occur when Yves won’t be conciliatory about who he is and what he does. He raps. Not in the pack a bar around a snare drum and an ad-lib, but really raps. A master word technician, he refuses to hobble to the finish line here, thinking of friends who’ve lost their lives to the silliest situations and sneering at those who continue to act as if this is a game to him. On “God Saves,” one of two back-to-back head-rockers that immediately make you want to toss a car at someone, Yves offers one of his best moments of advice throughout the album: “Please keep it funky by doing you/ Hustlin’ ain’t never been beautiful/ Pretty good at it, but broke up with her/ Maybe broke up with me, it was mutual/ 9-to-5 what I refuse to do/ New nigga my life would neuter you / Just keep talkin’ shit from your cubicles/ I could have your DNA in my cuticles.”
Yves emotes here with as much singing as he’s possibly ever done. Last September’s “Spook Who Sat By the Door” is technically regarded as the only single from the album, a Sam Greenlee tribute in which Yves shows that black death is nothing to be celebrated, much less ignored. Over Aretha Franklin’s “Until You Come Back to Me,” it’s as pure a rap exercise as can be. Yves returned to his element on Don’t Panic, the cover art resembling every facet of his mind. He may feel left or right in regards to certain situations, but he’s never looking straight ahead. Why? There's too much in the world to ignore either side.
While Yves balanced off being part of a family and has watched the family grow and do other things, the guys at Picture My Vision are back to what they did as kids. They’re sharing space, joyously battling and making their rap moments feel like proving grounds. The weird aspect about rap crews in Houston is that they barely exist. Not everyone in a particular crew raps. The DYNA crew has one solid leader in Doeman; everyone else happens to play a role. Propain’s Forever Trill imprint? The same. Besides stalwarts such as the South Park Coalition and the Screwed Up Click, the only crews of note are The Sauce Factory and Icey Life. Both have at minimum three rappers with clout, and each one navigates in spaces that are open for anyone and everyone to eat off of. PMV wants to get into that space. Figuring out who exactly is the best rapper within the crew is a fun exercise.
PMV Mixtape, Vol. 1 somehow had to be scaled down to an 11-track odyssey of jokes and one-liners traded by SeanoPhresh, Jay-Von and Sea. HustleGrade’s Kelsey McDaniel serves as makeshift host of the tape, her voice cutting in and out of songs and freestyles like an Angie Martinez interview. Sea, the label’s founder, had to be compelled to even rap as previously stashed-away and released singles from his own PMV tape from years back surface here. It’s a ploy similar to that crafted by Terrence “Punch” Henderson, the TDE figurehead who may also serve as that label’s third- or fourth-best rapper. On “Rap Entrepreneur,” the mixtape’s proper introduction, Seano references 1999 Eddie Griffin flicks while also dreaming about owning his own label one day. “Nobody’s bigger than the crew,” he raps with a whispery rasp. He juggles typical sex prowess for a one-nighter, yet makes it humorous and personal by making her morning mission grabbing doughnut holes and kolaches. Stretches later on “Threestyle,” all three men jump in the booth to let certain objects of their lives be heard and felt. Pushing through sewn-together stretches of both EMPD’s “You’re A Customer” and OutKast’s “Skew It On The Bar-B,” every man fends for himself.
Between Jay-Von’s step behind/step ahead flow and SeanoPhresh’s want for blood and respect, the PMV mixtape experience is a short throwback to the days when jumping on other people’s tracks and ripping them to shreds was the norm. The beauty of PMV as a collective is that somehow, they’ve managed to breathe new life into a friendship and partnership that possibly could have stalled a long time ago.
SONGS OF THE WEEK
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Before Nique fully goes away to Los Angeles for a while, he introduces us to more slang and a hypnotic chunk of music that dribbles after every syllable.
ROB GULLATTE, “In the Galaxy”
Watching Rob Gullatte get back in the groove is a beautiful thing. Also him realizing that there are better things than rap (spending time with his son and daughter) is even more beautiful. But he’s way too good at rapping for people to leave him alone about it. “I built it up off bare minimum,” Gullatte says on “In The Galaxy.” What did he say before that? “Walk through the zoo with no bodyguards/ You just a man, you are not a God.” See why Rob can’t leave rap alone?