A few weeks ago, a debate arose on Twitter about whether or not Lil Troy had died. Troy, the Short Stop Records head honcho, had recently performed at a Houston Rockets game and told the Houston Press that he wouldn’t stop balling. Last month, one website attempted to proclaim that he had died in a car accident. Lil Troy is still alive and well, but another figure from “Wanna Be a Baller” died in that accident, Troy’s cousin Lil’ Will. The same site attempted to correct the story, but instead posted an image of Dallas rapper Lil' Will of "My Dougie" fame. The death of Houston's Lil' Will had gone mostly unnoticed on the local news, but once it was confirmed by Troy’s son, the rapper T2, did the facts begin coming out — and the reminiscing about “Wanna Be a Baller” begin.
The song offers up the idea that while “Wanna Be a Baller” is a fun song, a twisted-up sample of Prince's “Little Red Corvette” stretched over four minutes of Southern rap testimony, it's also rather bleak in the end. The song's collaborators are mostly gone, either dead or faded into tragic obscurity. Troy continues to clutch the title of Houston's second platinum solo rapper and third overall, after Scarface's The Diary and the Geto Boys' We Can't Be Stopped. Big HAWK, who filled in for his brother Fat Pat for the video shoot, is gone. Same for Fat Pat, whose verse was added to “Wanna Be a Baller” posthumously after he died in early 1998.
Lil' Will, who was saddled with the rather unenviable task of following Fat Pat, was laid to rest February 27. Big T is around but not as fiery a figment as he was in his hook kingpin days. No one rapper may represent the tale of Icarus better than Yungstar, though. A star, whose legend was cemented on DJ Screw’s monumental “June 27th” freestyle in 1996, destroyed three Houston rap staples: Mista Madd’s “Down South”; his own “Knocking Pictures Off the Wall” and this, the opening and closing verses officially belonging to him in 1998. Then he faded off into a haze of drugs, making sporadic appearances at local rap shows. A record that was made under the banner of a Lil Troy album, but featuring five people, has now been whittled down to two.
That’s the kind of tragic thing death does in Houston: Makes you wonder what exactly happened after certain watershed moments. In WhyJae’s case, death hasn’t necessarily snatched his rap career in a different direction. For The Aspiring Me, it’s definitely pushed his creative purpose into a specific mode. In Kirko Bangz’s case, playing a specific role while living as far way from death as possible has funneled into his creative process. All three men have recently released projects, each as different as the men who created them.
For WhyJae, 30MLFTI is your classic pressure-filled rap tape. As a rapper with a modicum of success, he understands the little power he does have. He’s the leader of a youth movement and sees parallels between his path and that of Bryson Tiller, whom he could reach with a simple text message. It also comes plagued with sirens, paranoia and the chase after money, fame and reassurance.
In most cases, WhyJae plays off of his minor insecurities in classic rapper tales of feeling overlooked (whether by women or critics) and raps his ass off. He snatches and weaves around verses as if it's all he has to offer. “Understanding” and “Winners” are the tape's first and so far only two singles, and both line up with spritely instrumentals and keys that are more adolescent than anything. Both feel like they’re sound tracks for Little Mac to punch through pun-named enemies in Punch Out!
WhyJae renders them both as insignificant. He makes these couplets, strings of words that in most hands would feel like blocks too heavy and complicated to hold, and immediately fits them in a spot, then moves on. He even trades with Tedy Andreas, who proves his rap worth on “Came Up,” as things kind of settle into a slush of trap sayings, tough talk and the long chase up the pyramid titled success. Where the lyric-heavy 30MLFTI rests on is WhyJae's sitting with the paranoia of possibly watching someone in his crew get locked up. His mother’s words chase him like a strong stench, warning him of the cousins who have gotten caught up with pistols or dope or worse. It’s the next logical step after Timeless, going from a rapper adjusting to having a following to a rapper turning down deals until the price is right.
In the headspace of The Aspiring Me, everything with OK, Whatever feels liberating. A tape that feels like it's been sitting in an incubator for a long while, it picks around what satisfies The Aspiring Me’s id: women, drinking with friends and casual braggadocio that gets souped up when playing the dozens.
The title track sways around in chaos with Andrew Davis moving out of his head for a brief second to rage out. The party continues on with “Black Child,” in a sort of minor rage against the machine affair. It’s subtitled “all of my life,” and it sort of plays that way. Most of the punchlines here riff off 1990s-style Beavis & Butt-Head comparisons — witty lines that jump out when focused upon but when strung together, form a bigger conversation.
We normally crucify people who play up to their idols, so much so that they end up aping those artists for extended moments. The Aspiring Me does his best to scurry away from the Kid Cudi Rager moments on OK, Whatever. He even pulls off an act of love, lust and reflection with a four-track opera from swinging from town to town (“Houston on Tuesday, LA on Friday”) to ultimately falling to his knees wondering for answers from a lover (“For a Visit”). Even when piecing rap lines together with best friend Fat Tony, The Aspiring Me walks and resonates best when he’s asking questions.
“White Lies,” with Express, is a query about the justice system, chasing friends from chasing bad decisions and ultimately thumping your chest just for surviving a day. It only helps that the music on OK, Whatever, from “Trump Supporters Be Like…” (with Grayson Paul Creely) to the ethereal folksiness of “Zin Way, 77004,” stretches the tape outside of its predetermined box. One, because The Aspiring Me still finds a way to “Funkwichamind." Two, because Andrew Davis has forever been served playing to his own drum.
Kirko Bangz is in a much different space than a solid 93 percent of the Houston rap sphere. Part of that is due to the fact he’s still part of the major-label system; another is due to his ability to tour off a passionate fan base and a few scattered singles a year. The shift from Warner to Atlantic to 300 Entertainment has only yielded two constants: Bangz’s constant struggle and debut album Bigger Than Me, which was originally announced a full three years ago.
In 20 minutes, Kirko dusted off his loverman persona with Playa Made, his first extended play, where his R&B pen is asked to do very little in order to create plenty. Pulling in help from X.O and Jacquees on “Mileage” and tape standout “145” only shifts the voices around a bit. Playa Made is sexual, comparing women in metaphorical dances that were first established by the best R. Kelly idioms of the mid-'90s. Comparing a woman to an opiate in codeine feels far sexier than saying she reminds you of a Jeep. Eying a woman and not caring about her profession is Bangz establishing the walls he won't put up in regards to lust and love.
The most honest project from Bangz always comes in the form of his Progression projects. Here, he’s allowed to play up his “Drank In My Cup”/“What Yo Name Iz” persona to the utmost. It’s the easiest way to prop him up as something besides a Houston rap star. If he can operate singles with Fetty Wap to moderate success for women, a whole tape aimed for them should enhance the success rate, no?