The H-Town Countdown, No. 14: Trae's Restless
Roughly 84,000 rap albums have been released in Houston since 1989. We're counting down the 25 best of all time every Thursday. Got a problem with the list? Shove it. Just kidding. Friendship. Email it to email@example.com.TraeRestless
Disclaimer: We dissected this album without referencing "Swang," the album's best song and possibly the finest representation of what it is that makes Trae Trae. We did this in part because we wanted to see if we could do it, but mostly because a) we've already written about the layers of "Swang" several times before, as has just about anyone who has ever written about Trae and/or Restless; and b) if you've made it this far into the countdown, you're no doubt familiar with all that went on with that song anyway, namely Fat Pat's posthumous appearance and H.A.W.K.'s non-posthumous posthumous appearance. There's no need to waste your time rehashing everything. Although, we suppose it would've been easier to have just gone ahead and explained everything rather than fumbling through this now hamfisted disclaimer. So, moving on...
Restless is great for any number of reasons, but mainly this: it makes accessible not only the worst parts of the guts of a major American city (which can reasonably be extrapolated to represent every inner city), but also the psyche of a man intelligent enough to thrive there. To listen to it is to live on the 8900 block of Braeswood, except you don't have to worry about getting your shit took.
There is an ambient feeling of depression, at times nearly palpable, throughout the duration of Restless. Even the songs on it that aren't explicitly about something horrible happening to someone Trae loves - the Jim Jones-aided "Coming Around The Corner," "Pop Trunk Wave" and "Cadillac," which features a gorgeously swollen hook and an entirely unhateable feature from Paul Wall - are tinged with just enough desolation that they seem to serve only as stopgaps between bouts of depression and suffering.
And if this were the only thing you knew about the album, or Trae for that matter, you'd be forgiven for assuming it would be good for nothing more than serving as the soundtrack to blowing your brains out. But Trae presents that despondency in such an artful and willfully expressive manner that he endears himself to just about anyone with a pulse.
Where many Houston MCs get lost in the trappings of our caricatured regional culture or hard-life talk, Trae unionizes them without marginalizing either. He's uncommonly observant to the idiosyncrasies of the inner-city food web, and that makes it completely acceptable for you to argue that he's one of the best Houston street-talk rappers since Scarface.
This is a large part of the reason that he and Z-Ro so regularly get compared to one another, and that's a fair assessment because Z-Ro is brilliant at that as well. But Trae and Ro are worlds apart in an aesthetic context.
Z-Ro is going to die alone. He's accepted this as a fact. And, more to the point, he has incorporated it as the paradigm for the bulk of his music. On "Tired," from 2008's Crack, for example, a song shoelaced with issues of isolation and forced solitude, he sings "When you see me in the town/ You ain't gotta slow down/ I'm in love with my own company."
Trae however, when addressing those exact same matters on "Song Cry," bellows "I feel the need to share my pain/ Come on stand in the rain with a nigga/ See how I feel on an everyday basis/ When hard life took aim at a nigga." They both recognize the futility of living a meaningless existence, and both narrate it impeccably, but Trae aims to empower you through outreach. Z-Ro has always sounded lonely within himself, where Trae's has been more of a social loneliness. It doesn't make one better than the other, it just makes one different from the other.
The obvious irony here is that the song we chose to display Z-Ro's wont for loneliness samples "No Help," no less than the third best track on Restless, and with the unforgettable "I don't need no help, my nigga/ I can do bad on my own" hook. But we digress.
Restless is beautiful in its bleak openness, and one of the most genuine solo albums from any of the second (or third) generation Houston rappers. Buy it. Because, seriously, if you're the type of person that reads about rap albums online, you'd absolutely would get your shit took in the 'West.