I walked into my mom’s room, getting ready for fourth grade, holding the white and red Air Jordan 13s in my hand. The channel was flicked on to NBC because my mother loved NBC’s morning news more than anybody else at the time. I went to her room to talk about cleaning my shoes when I turned my neck, which probably did the work of four combined necks by carrying my big ass fourth-grade head. I heard the announcer say: “HOUSTON RAPPER PATRICK HAWKINS, BETTER KNOWN AS FAT PAT, WAS SHOT AND KILLED AT AN APARTMENT COMPLEX —” The rest of the details faded out, and I remember saying, “Whoa.” My mom asked if I knew the guy, a statement that would become her lead sentence any time a rapper’s death was announced on the news. I nodded and said yes.
Fat Pat was everywhere in 1998, both in life and death. The year before, he had released this slow rumble of perfection called “Tops Drop.” It had the same Yarborough & Peoples sample that Puff Daddy and Lil Kim had used for No Way Out, but this felt and sounded better. Pat had this baritone that seemed like stacking a megaphone in front of Barry White; that sound came from a giant subwoofer the size of Yao Ming. You couldn’t mistake a Fat Pat verse or his lingo, that twisted-up Houston phrasing that sounded like a brand-new language. Fat Pat was the shit and one of the greatest Houston what-ifs in a city halfway built on what-ifs.
What made Pat so memorable as a rapper — beyond that voice, built to transfer his thoughts into these life parables, plus richly rhyming "Suburban" with anything — was timing. Pat’s music, sinewy at the beginning turned thick blobs of rich Houston-specific sound, felt like it could exist in any space and time. Riding around the city trying to avoid 290? Put on Fat Pat. Smoking or drinking with friends? Put on Fat Pat. Thinking you’re the shit with an air of confidence that mirrors J.R. Smith off a bottle of Hennessy? Put on Fat Pat’s “Superstar” and keep it moving.
I say all of that to say that music, appropriate music from Houston, is time-specific. It has to chronologically match up with whatever you’re doing and your purpose for doing it. In the past two months, four Houston rap tapes have merged with this simple line of thinking. We’ll grade them in regards to when you should listen to them and how should you consume them.
LE$, Summer Madness
Who: Le$, a rapper who emits cool and has a casual enough drawl to create peace talks between any two beefing nations. Except for the United States and North Korea because he’d be arguing for a breathing chode.
What: Summer Madness is a 10-track project helmed by Le$ and DJ Mr. Rogers. It is the follow-up to Midnight Club; another Le$ project that is Houston-specific. You can watch “45 South” from Midnight Club below, as Rogers weds Big Boi’s vocals from “West Savannah” to Childish Gambino’s “Redbone.”
When Should You Play This Album? Top down, cruising on your way to Whataburger or anywhere with considerable distance between your starting point and ending point.
How Should You Play This Album? Loud, with all your sound equalizers at the right pitch. Le$’ rap voice has a rasp to it that sounds like a snare drum when cued up just right. Hearing him rap about regular-day living items like getting to the money and avoiding the pitfalls of life is what makes him, well him. “Fresh Cut” navigates a 1997 feel of dominant, ‘80s pop samples (David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”) with the R&B of that same era (Loose Ends’ “Hanging On a String”) as Le$ steers an early-model BMW to his final destination. Riding music, an aesthetic that lives specifically in West Coast hip-hop and Houston hip-hop, is the chief appeal of Summer Madness. Le$ and Rogers, who have been making music together for more than half a decade, are fully invested here. There are many answers as to what Le$’ strongest tape is. Summer Madness makes a case for inclusion on that list.
JETT I MASSTYR, Decorative Pillows
Who: Jett I Masstyr is the production alter-ego of hasHBrown. hasHBrown is a rapper who made a significant project centered on relationships titled Relationsh*t a few years ago.
What: Decorative Pillows is Jett I’s long-awaited full-length album, his version of The Chronic where the hasHBrown side of him occasionally raps but the stars are everyone he could call up to appear on the tape. Imagine for a second you could have the perfect high-school reunion where everyone kept up with one another, and you had 30 people form like Voltron to be the best representation of what you guys were in high school. That, in a nutshell, is Decorative Pillows. Dante Higgins, OneHunnidt, Rob Gullatte, John Dew, Kashmere Don, Hollywood Floss, Undergravity, George Young, Jack Freeman, Hot Peez, 2 Raw, Delorean and Roosh Williams all appear here. All of them.
When Should You Play This Album? When surrounded by your skeptical-ass friend who keeps asking you who is hot in Houston and if anybody is rapping.
How Should You Play This Album? You could go about this two ways. You could bring together a large faction of people who typically stand stoically at Houston rap shows and feel that they’re too cold to support the work being done onstage. You could hold all of those people in a room and instead of letting Vernon Maxwell channel 1994 by running up the stands and slapping a heckler, play this album to watch their scrunch faces. Or you could still have Vernon Maxwell run up and slap them. Either way, make sure Vernon Maxwell is present.
The second way you could play this album is the single version, when you’ve got your headphones on and are trying to block out the entire world. This instance is the safer of the two, seeing that you don’t know what would happen after Mad Max slapped those poor souls in the previous paragraph.
Jett I’s production scrapes every surface he had laid prior, whether it be the small-beat suites from earlier in the year or even hasHBrown’s Rap Mayor series from almost six years ago. The latter’s guest spots come not in a forced way. The title track is a Four Horseman of the Apocalypse type of moment, with gothic piano keys and evil laughter everywhere. Delorean, Roosh Williams, and Rob Gullatte all lead off here, thinking they’re in the Flying V from The Mighty Ducks. When it comes time for hasHBrown to rap in that second-off delayed-jab flow of his, every word is meant and connects just a bit harder.
If Decorative Pillows were a hotel room and Jett I Masstyr your concierge, all 13 rooms in that hotel would feel like suites. “Boogie Chop” slides in at the right time to interrupt the large chunk of lively bars and instrumentation. “Magic,” feat. Suraiye Miles, is woozy two-step music and “Whirlwind” brings static drums and a lounge-y bass line for Mac of Undergravity to run an iso on a woman and overlook a trap from another defender. Decorative Pillows is what occurs when you let one producer work with his favorites and one L.A. cousin (El Prez) to create funky rap tunes.
ROY O., Ovie
Who: Roy O a relative newcomer of a rapper. Not that he just started rapping, no. Roy O has been here since his family moved from Nigeria when he was ten. He's the kind of rapper who tells you he can rap and you brush him off. Later when you see him perform all of his great raps, you're in awe, but he remembers that you played him. Roy O. remembers everything.
What: Ovie as an album feels like a collection of songs and thoughts. They aren't necessarily strung together by an overarching theme, as some of the other records in our experiment are. It's Roy O. letting his voice dribble like Kyrie Irving running an isolation with the clock running down. There's him and a few guests, but his story is the main one being told. It's a perfect story for an introductory project. Or, a second chance at a first impression.
When Should You Play This Album? In a car, on a late-night stroll deep into your thoughts.
How Should You Play This Album? Actually, play this in headphones and prepare to drown the world out that surrounds you. "Find Your Way," a song that features one of only two guests in Ovie in Lee-Lonn picks up words of wisdom from Roy O's mother and father in consecutive verses. There are small tinkles of Pharrell's percussion from early N.E.R.D records layered within "Find Your Way," and Roy O takes on a superficial alter-ego with "Swervy Jackson." The tape picks up cues from other short, concise albums in a similar ilk.
What separates Ovie from those pieces of mental construction is that Roy O is going for an in-and-out method. It's not crafting records that are so layered that you develop a message board for them. It's about crafting records that keep your head nodding, occasionally rewinding to grab a bar or two for a caption and then moving on. "Don't tell me to pump my breaks," he raps on "Swervy Jackson" before giving way to the Nigeria-New Orleans bounce that is "Fluorescent" with Hot Peez. In fact, let's discuss "Fluorescent" for a moment. It's a rap song that picks up the smallest traces of NOLA drag rap, and Roy O contorts his voice to sound like someone trying to catch the beat but not wholly stumble. He gets his composure right before Hot Peez takes over and the result is terrific. It's a risk most artists wouldn't take. Roy O let it breathe on his damn project.
RICHELLE GEMINI, Survival Mode
Who: A slam-poetry star who recently let her voice become an instrument during the latest installment of Doughbeezy's 'H Town Rap Battle.' She didn't win, but she fought her way to the final six, which is a first for a female artist at the burgeoning bi-weekly event. Also has a hell of a broader story beyond slam poetry.
What: Survival Mode sounds as its title implies. Gemini takes seven pages out of her life and lets us hear about every wrinkle, positive, negative and more. Every page feels like it's Richelle explaining why she endured what she endured and pushed forward. A 26-minute vent session with jarring piano stabs skinny synths and heart-stomping drums.
When Should You Play This Album? On a night when it's you and the people you trust around you. Light a candle or two and also some incense. Add some liquor as well because everyone is going to get something off of their chest and it will be therapeutic. Not Janet Jackson "fix this" in Why Did I Get Married 2 therapeutic, either.
How Should You Play This Album? In that same setting as above, cut the album up to about a six or a seven if your speakers go up to ten. It will be loud but still listenable. Now, digest the very first song on the EP, "Child Support," and pause for a moment. Realize for a moment that a woman started off a project introducing herself by admitting two items that would usually be buried in the middle of an EP, not the beginning. One, raising two boys hasn't been a crystal staircase, especially when one of their fathers has not been around. In fact, he's been reduced to the simple yet devastated nickname of "a sperm donor." The second child's father is an abuser in her eyes, and she describes the events that earned him the label in detail. I won't say much more, but it involves Richelle explaining how she was hit as she was holding the child in her arms. Or when she was pushed into a door and how she couldn't bother seeing that man in court. That's how Survival Mode starts.
It peels back even more into the Richelle Gemini story, about wants and desires for career and health. Survival Mode doesn't skitter around because Richelle operates as a narrator, a self-help muse to help listeners get through their issues and moments of stagnancy. "The