V. 2011. 1.
Kirko Bangz is sitting on a couch in an oversized house in North Houston that is filled with people watching him move.
He is flanked by two attractive females, each of them doing their best to gain his gaze. They caress his face and his chest and grasp his biceps. When he gets up to walk away, both paw at him. He turns and looks at them. They let go. Another woman, large-breasted and pouty-lipped, has entered his purview. And he is heading toward her now. The implication seems clear: He intends to win her also, even if only to ignore her later, too.
Bangz, né Kirk Randle, is a handsome kid — charming smile, strong jawline, a muscular physique that tonight is acquiescing to the restrictions of his V-neck sweater — so earning the attention of women has never been terribly difficult. But it's never been as easy as it is now.
Two years ago, Bangz was recording grainy videos of himself rapping and uploading them to YouTube. At the moment, he is receiving instruction from director Mr. Boomtown (worked with Lil Wayne, Ross, 50, more) as they record the official video for his second single, "Drank in My Cup," a saucy, sexy, catchy aggregate of mechanized thumps and machismo.
"Drank..." is the follow-up to last year's "What Yo' Name Iz," a robotized earworm single that first narrated Bangz's apparent hypersexualized existence (in it, the female protagonist lasted all of 0:25 before she found herself naked in his bathtub) and ushered him toward local stardom.
"What..." is an undeniably good, effective song. Among other things, it wiggled onto Billboard's Top Hip-Hop and R&B charts and secured a cosign from DJ Drama, one of the industry's current tastemakers. More importantly, though, it earned Bangz a major record deal (Warner), the first a rap artist from Houston has been awarded in six years. Still, "Drank...," produced by Sound M.O.B., the production team responsible for "What..." as well, is better in every aspect.
It is more precise, more engaging, more compelling and somehow even more visceral. (He makes it only 0:17 before revealing why your girlfriend would rather have sex with him than you.)
Collectively, it has already gained more than 2 million views on YouTube. It is currently being played on more than 50 radio stations across the country. And it even leapfrogged "What Yo' Name Iz" on its ascension up the same Billboard chart.
Kirko wanders fully away from the girls on the couch.
The camera fades to black. When it dissolves back into light, the large-breasted, pouty-lipped woman is halfway up a staircase, softly beckoning Bangz toward her with her delicate index finger. He approaches, grabs her hand.
Kirko Bangz is at the epicenter of a rap renaissance taking place in Houston.
But first, he's going to have sex.
V. 2005. 1.
For nearly three decades, Houston rap was invisible to anyone living north of Amarillo. There were flashpoints of success, moments where it seemed like its engaging, brilliant characters might receive their due, but they all came undone.
There was the time the Geto Boys, handcrafted by eventual regional kingpin J. Prince, released We Can't Be Stopped in 1991. It was certified platinum a year later and ultimately aged to become one of the most — if not the most — important albums in Southern rap history. But the threesome — an enigmatic genius named Scarface, a physical marvel and imposing natural disaster named Willie D and a breakdancing Jamaican dwarf named Bushwick Bill most famous for forcing his then-girlfriend to shoot him in the face — was always too macabre to become ubiquitous.
There was the time DJ Screw spent a decade creating/perfecting a whole new genre of music, Chopped and Screwed, the one that's still listed as the city's flagship style and default answer when pinning a label to Houston rap. It would eventually go on to infiltrate rap music entirely, even serving as the underpinnings of Houston's greatest rap boom later. However, Screw overdosed on a mixture of codeine, alcohol and marijuana in 2000, well before it was recognized as being transcendent.
There was the time South Park Mexican was going to be sovereign. With little more than a GED and an ungodly work ethic, he built a music presence that he leveraged into a distribution deal with Universal Records. It earned him a tidy $500,000 advance. He was king, pied piper to a seemingly endless number of disenfranchised youths. In the first verse of the first song on Never Change, his classic 2001 album, he bragged that he was writing "on this laptop in this jet, with the Universal Records president," sounding every bit like a savior. A few months later, he stood in a courtroom and listened as a judge sentenced him to 45 years in prison for molesting a nine-year-old girl.
In and out. In and overdosed. In and jailed.
Then a spark.
In the beginning of the aughts, a cornrowed, shiny-toothed 21-year-old braggart named Lil' Flip carried Houston's ostensibly limp body to the forefront. After he'd grown his reputation via a dedicated allegiance to Houston underground's rap business model (1. Make a lot of music; 2. Show up to everygoddamnthing), Flip brokered a deal with record company Columbia. In 2002, they released Undaground Legend, which featured the radiant, wonky single "The Way We Ball." The album went platinum. He followed that with U Gotta Feel Me in 2004. Two monster singles, "Game Over (Flip)" and "Sunshine," muscled the album into pop music omnipresence. It went double platinum.
Houston was viable. Better, though, its rappers were ready.
A brash young group of cultural attachés — Mike Jones, Slim Thug, Paul Wall and Chamillionaire, all artists on the local label, SwishaHouse — had spent the years prior cultivating their own variation of Houston rap, trying to gain the attention of the rap world.
In 2005, the labels every rapper coveted came to Houston to find them.
"After I signed to Interscope," remembers Slim Thug, "they [record labels] started signing everybody."
Perhaps galvanized by Lil' Flip's success, Chamillionaire was the only local titan to land a feature on Undaground Legend and Will-Lean was the only Houstonian to be featured (on U Gotta Feel Me), they unleashed a firestorm of hits and megahits on the nation, shifting national rap's zeitgeist almost overnight.
• Mike Jones, a decent rapper but a preternaturally gifted businessman, released Who Is Mike Jones? ("Still Tippin'," "Back Then") in April of 2004. Two months later, he was celebrating its platinum rating.
• After Slim Thug had risen to king status in Houston's underground, he signed his deal. Superproducers The Neptunes (Jay-Z, Snoop, Kanye, etc.) put their hands on his debut album, Already Platinum ("3 Kings," "I Ain't Heard of That"). It was released that July, sold 130,000 copies its first week and ultimately moved more than half a million copies despite heavy bootlegging.
• In September, Paul Wall's The People's Champ ("Sittin' Sidewayz," "They Don't Know") sold 176,000 copies in its first week. The unconventional white rapper who first hustled his way into SwishaHouse's favor by handing out party flyers and putting up posters had his major label debut settle into the number one spot on Billboard's Top 200 chart. Platinum.
• Chamillionaire released his debut album, The Sound of Revenge, in November, then watched as it went platinum too, along the way earning a Grammy ("Ridin'" featuring Krayzie Bone; Best Rap Performance By a Duo or Group) and a thicket of other awards.
The universe had gone from 1992 to 2002 and seen only two Houston rappers produce platinum-selling records (Scarface's The Diary, 1994, and The Untouchable, 1997; Lil' Troy's Sittin' Fat Down South, 1999). There were three over the course of eight months in 2005.
Then the bottom fell out.
V. 2011. 2.
The difference between rapping prior to 2005 and rapping now is as different as the Internet then and now. Fundamentally, the idea is still the same (get information from one place to another), but the contexts are entirely dissimilar, which breeds a key singular difference between Houston's last rap surge and this potential new one:
"The Houston sound is more diverse," says UZOY, a talented young rapper with the gall to have a vagina instead of a penis. "I think everybody making music doesn't sound like they did before because it's not like before. I just make music that comes naturally to me. I appreciate the Houston culture. In the music I make, you won't hear it, though. I don't feel like since you're from somewhere you should like something. You should be who you are."
Incidentally, this is exactly the thinking that shapes a culture.
"When we first started advertising or shouting out, 'New Houston! New Houston!' people were upset about that," says Kane, a rapper/party promoter who's been an instrumental component in the development of the younger rap generation's burgeoning professional presence.
"What they didn't understand is that we weren't saying, 'Oh, New Houston,' like, we were wanting to change the city's identity. No. I love the city. The culture is the culture. It's gonna be that. 'New Houston' was a phrase meant to categorize the new artists in the city. It's irresponsible to ignore what they're doing. And you're starting to see those gaps bridged between a Kirko and a Slim or a Propain and a Bun. There are a lot of people doing a lot of things."
Houston's buzz, were you to measure it, is not furiously high outside the Beltway. Presumably, it is no better off than Cincinnati or Idaho or any other dot on the map that nobody who doesn't live there cares about. But right now, that's sort of the point.
"Most regional movements start off just about nonexistent to out-of-towners," explains Jayson Rodriguez, executive editor at XXL magazine. "[It stays that way] until the point it saturates its local market, then bursts onto the next city, then the following, etc., till it feels like it exploded overnight."
"Still Tippin'," the first single from Who Is Mike Jones?, is credited with having started the 2005 movement. And that's a fair enough assessment, because basically it did. But it was a hit in Houston well before then. SwishaHouse released it first in 2003.
National media wasn't talking about what Houston was doing in 2003 or 2004.
That's sort of the point, too.
V. 2005. 2.
The New York Times came. The New Yorker came. MTV came. BET came. XXL, The Source, USA Today, forward-thinking bloggers, people that liked soda, people that wore hats, people that didn't wear hats, everyone, more; they all came, came to see the golden(-grilled) geese that had finally figured out how to fully commercialize Houston rap en masse.
The city was hip-hop's ruling class.
The world listened, became infatuated with the slow-mo culture, loved it, championed it. And then, same as had happened in L.A. and Atlanta and St. Louis and so on, they stopped. Hard.
Paul Wall retained the most inertia initially. He released Get Money, Stay True in 2007 and it sold 92,000 in its first week; still impressive, and good enough for 8th on Billboard at the time, but not nearly as influential or significant in the pop culture canon. When Heart of a Champion, his fifth studio album and arguably his most dexterous to date, came in 2010, it lived undisturbed on shelves. It sold 7,600 copies in its first week, a 96 percent drop-off from his 2005 album.
Chamillionaire released Ultimate Victory to better-than-modest numbers in 2007, too (79,000 first week), but it somehow seemed paltry, shadowed alone by the surreal success of the single "Ridin'" (Grammy, MTV Video of the Year, cited by Rolling Stone as the third-best song of the year, more). Afterwards, he was the victim of a messy label dispute that prevented him from releasing any proper music.
Jones failed to release his self-hyped follow-up LP The American Dream as a full-length album. Instead, he offered it as a retread EP, supplemented with a movie of the same name that was almost unwatchable. When he did manage to release an album, The Voice (2009), it flopped. More than two years later, it has sold less than 65,000 copies. Jones disappeared from Houston, and is rumored to have moved to Atlanta. He has only recently begun popping up online again, filming awkward video interviews and tweeting about an upcoming mixtape appropriately titled Where Is Mike Jones?.
Slim Thug, who was unjustly criticized by Texas loyalists for having out-of-towners create the atmospherics for Already Platinum, didn't release another album until 2009. When he did, it was a moving, monstrous, menacing ode to the dynamism of Southern hip-hop, all swollen hooks and trunk destruction. It was the most honest, most open work of his life. It sold 32,000 copies in its first week.
Nearing 2010, only Bun B, consistent as the letter "E," and Trae, primed to be Houston's next breakout star, were making national headlines. But Bun B was a proven commodity, the legacy of UGK long secure. And Trae's name wasn't ringing out for his music, but rather a lack of it. He was banned by one of the largest radio corporations in America following a verbal altercation with a DJ and subsequent mixtape disses. He had moved back to the D-I-Y circuit, still attaining successes, but not those he was perhaps in line to receive.
V. 2011. 3.
"It's cool to be country, but not if you're from the country," explains rapper Killa Kyleon. "The shit backfired on us." Two minutes into the conversation and his mouth is already sprinting to keep up with his brain.
In a city full of outsized personalities, Kyleon, a hip-hop historian with an affinity for art and talking shit, is especially so.
He is elaborating on the notion that it's now unacceptable artistically for rappers from the South to mimic and/or regurgitate the Southern rap tropes that they created (grills, Syrup, Screwed music, etc), but it is okay — groundbreaking, even — for rappers from other parts of the country to do so.
Most famously, Drake, a Canadian who has shown a candid appreciation for Houston rap culture for the duration of his career (he even managed to record a "June 27th" homage that he called "November 18th"), did so.
And most recently (or egregiously), A$AP Rocky, a Harlemite with tenuous-at-best ties to Houston, has done so.
When Drake signed with Lil Wayne's Young Money label, he reportedly received a $2 million advance. When Rocky signed with Sony/RCA sector Polo Grounds Music, he reportedly secured a hefty $3 million advance.
"I honestly believe we're the trendiest city in rap," says Kyleon. "Shout-out, A$AP Rocky."
Growing up, Kyleon's mother was an employee of Harris County Probate Court, his father a laborer at a plumbing supply company.
During the school week, Mom raised young Killa, born Kyle Riley, in Trinity Gardens, an austere neighborhood on the north side of Houston. On the weekends, Dad raised him in an equally baleful section of concrete, the poetically named Dead End neighborhood in south Houston.
Kyleon was planted square in the center of Houston's North-South civil war during his youth, loyalties to both sides. He flourished in the ferocious, learning how to hustle, how to breathe with confidence, how to understand what people needed and wanted. He moved at warp speed. Rap came easy to him.
Underground legend K-Rino is heralded for having recorded all 17 of the tracks on his 2006 album Time Traveler in 21 days. Kyleon once recorded 23 songs in a single day.
"People say Houston fell off after '05," spurts Kyleon, always full speed. "It's been alive and well, way before and beyond 2005."
It doesn't feel immediately natural to classify Kyleon as a new artist. He was already part of the professional rap community during Houston's boom, watched the whole thing happen from the inside. He had even signed with Interscope alongside then group member Slim Thug. But he never officially released any music under Interscope because, as Kyleon explains it, "it was new to them, they didn't know what to do with the music or how to market it to the public." He spent a substantial part of his career waiting for his contract to expire in 2009.
So now he operates within the new class of rappers (refusing to tell anyone his age, mind you), wisdom gained from ten years of work and a major label signing, but still with the vigor of someone who's never released a debut album. He is excited, eager and proud.
Today, Kyleon has as much buzz as he's ever had.
"Houston has influenced everything in rap music," says Kyleon. "We can't do what we did, but others can. People are looking to see what Houston is going to do next. They're gonna try and take that too."
"When it's my time, I'll be ready."
V. 2011. 4.
"It fired me up," he says. "I can't even tell you."
It's after 5 p.m. on a Saturday. Kirko Bangz is answering interview questions on a cell phone. And he is a little irritated.
As there are with any artist, particularly new artists, particularly new artists from a city that is so closely identified with a specific music identity, there are common criticisms about Bangz. They range from the playful (Maybe the girl from "What Yo' Name Iz" would tell him what her name was if he stopped calling her bitch) to the dismissive (He's like a Drake knockoff). He sidesteps most of them. But one touches his bones:
He doesn't sound like he's from Houston.
An example: There's a famous SwishaHouse freestyle track from the late nineties called "Drank in My Cup." The very first comment on the YouTube page for the video: "I'm ashamed that Kirko Bangz showed up when I looked this up."
This is a common denigration levied against all but a few of the new underclassmen.
It's a delicate topic; there are just too many implications. If THIS is new then THAT is old, and old is bad, so basically what you're saying is fuck DJ Screw?!, is how a lot of those conversations unfairly unravel. But it's one any (all) new Houston artists will have to stare down.
"It's a challenge," says Bangz. "I want people to respect what we got going on; not just new, but Houston, in general."
On his left bicep is a tattoo of the Houston Astros star. On his left forearm is a tattoo of Pimp C and Big Moe overlooking the city's skyline, with "Houston" written underneath in cursive in case there's any confusion. Underneath his left ear is a tattoo of the old Houston Oilers logo.
"When I did 'What Yo' Name Iz' I had a lot of people telling me that it wasn't Houston. So when we did the new single, we were in the room, I said we weren't leaving until people could hear it and know where I was from. I mean, it's called 'Drank In My Cup.'"
"Then, when we were getting ready to do the video, they said, 'We don't want it to be a typical Houston video'," says Bangz. "I was like, 'What the fuck do you mean, a typical Houston video?' It's cool to be from Houston."
"Ridin'" was the single that broke Chamillionaire nationally. He's acknowledged countless times that the theme for it was taken from UGK's revolutionary 1996 album Ridin' Dirty.
"Ridin'" didn't attempt to mimic the sound, the gorgeous country rap of Ridin' Dirty; that's an impossible feat. It took elements from it, paid homage and tried to advance it.
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Despite its being almost entirely about sex, "Drank in My Cup" is similar, if not altogether the same, in theory:
Address the history. Then try to make it.
"If I do it, or if anybody does it...," says Bangz. He pauses to consider the appropriate, measured response to Houston potentially popping again.
"We're about to kill that shit."