J-Dawg's Behind Tint Vol. 2 put him a stone's throw from stardom.
J-Dawg's Behind Tint Vol. 2 put him a stone's throw from stardom.

The Rap Renaissance

This is going to be a bit self-referential at first, but only to make a point.

The year 2007 was a big one at the Serrano household, with amazing things happening every day, it seemed. In no real order, some of the highlights: Our favorite basketball team, the San Antonio Spurs — or as we've come to call them, "God's Favorites" — won their fourth NBA championship.

We got married. Kanye West made Graduation. After premature contractions forced our wife into bed rest for four gut-check months — she had a needle in her leg the entire time that dripped medicine into her that kept her from giving birth — she gave birth to our twin sons, and all three eventually made it through mostly unscathed. Finally, people started trading us money for words we wrote.

For rap, 2010 was equally excellent. If 2009 was marked by indifference, with everyone pretending like they hated Chris Brown because there was nothing better to do, and 2008 by listlessness — the list of important rap events that year looks like this: 1. Lil' Wayne released The Carter III; 2. See No. 1 — 2010 was a renaissance.

It was grand on a macro scale, as Jay-Z redefined the "Rapper as Businessman" role; Big Boi's Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty revolutionized the Southern rap sound; Eminem sold a billion copies of Recovery; The Roots' How I Got Over made you forget they work for Jimmy Fallon; and Nicki Minaj was unleashed.

Then Kanye West topped them all with his G.O.O.D. Friday music series, which was eventually copied by the entire music industry, and released the transcendent, splendid My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

It was also grand on a micro scale.

Trae's feud with 97.9 The Box dominated the headlines in Houston. Though the rapper's lawsuit against the radio station was dropped, the Box's ban on his music has remained firmly in place; in fact, we are nearing something like month 16 of the embargo.

As such, Trae scrapped the release of a proper album this year and focused his energies on You Can't Ban Tha Truth, an unrelenting, scathing (but somehow not ill-tempered) indictment of The Box. He prosecuted everybody from corporate folk to his contemporaries, chastising the former for hollowing out rap's heart and the latter for their lack of vigor. He sprinted enthusiastically into martyrdom, without fear or concern, and registered the year's best, most important Houston rap album.

Bun B's Trill OG received a perfect five-mike rating from The Source, and everyone called phooey. It is a very good, but not transcendent, album, people said, and its designation as a classic smelled far too much like a make-up call.

Somehow, despite being arguably the most important rap group to come from the South in the history of time, UGK never received five mikes. Neither had Bun or Pimp C's previous solo joints.

Bun was gracious and proud, which is how he appears to handle every situation, but kept on his hustle same as he's been doing his entire life. Do you realize that he, the elder statesman of Houston hip-hop, had the busiest year of all?

Bun did a countless number of guest verses, released a proper album, a mixtape that wasn't a mixtape, became a college professor and signed an endorsement deal or two. Nutsos.

In addition to releasing a good if at times self-contradictory album, Tha Thug Show, Slim Thug discovered Twitter and everyone's life immediately became dull and boring in comparison. Lil' Flip, long forgotten en masse, released an avalanche of mixtapes, with a couple of them deserving thoughtful critique and analysis that never came.

The increasingly private and intriguing Chamillionaire popped his head out of his hole seemingly only to release Mixtape Messiah 7 and explain why his house being foreclosed wasn't really that big of a deal. People made fun of him until he explained why he let it go through foreclosure — a story that involves his son, his mother, cancer and a certain amount of guilt — and then everyone felt like a dick.

Z-Ro was quiet, mostly. His Heroin was, without question, one of the year's biggest disappointments, but he began to rumble back to life as the winter months approached.

Devin the Dude did what Devin the Dude does, release albums that people always overlook. Paul Wall did what a lot of people assumed he couldn't, release an album that showcased his preternatural ability to blend wit and Southern-rap charm into the same thing.

Scarface managed to release a mixtape that probably wasn't as good as everyone hoped it would be. And Mike Jones is still missing.

But if Houston rap belonged to anyone this year, it was the underclassmen. It seemed like everyone — everyone — released at least one tape worth talking about.

J-Dawg, now just a notch below A-Lister, affirmed his tag as Houston's Next Big Rap Star on Behind Tint Vol. 2, an overwhelmingly legitimate gangster-rap album. When he opened for Young Jeezy at the Arena Theatre in August, he very nearly ripped a hole in the moon with his ferocity.

Trae's younger brother Jay'Ton released a tape of his own, highlighted by the menacing "Hood Wired Up," which had the hood wired up, as it were. Yung Redd continued to wander around in purgatory right alongside K-Rino, endlessly overlooked and underappreciated.

Scooby announced he was going to release his first solo tape and nobody anywhere thought he could carry a project on his narrow shoulders. The D. Coleman Mixtape, though, verified what he had been telling everyone on Twitter: When focused, he possessed the talent to work his name into the upper echelon of Houston rappers.

Hollywood Floss, B L A C K I E and Fat Tony continued their respective treks towards the top of Underground Rap Mountain, as not enough nice things can ever be said about any of their live shows. Joining them along the way were the bombastic Yves of The Niceguys and Preemo, currently the most unexpected force in the scene.

Kyle Hubbard and Propain, wow. Welcome back, Nosaprise. Kirko Bangz's"What Yo' Name Iz" showed that what he lacks in sentence structure he makes up for in commercial viability. D-Risha, Lux and Les went wildly underrated and underreported on, as did Eskabel, Thurogood Wordsmith, Young Sensation, John Dew, Dirty & Nasty and Virgo & Montana (the latter is a fantastic videographer, too). hasHBrown is capable of monster production.

All chimed in with work that not only deserves a listen but merits more insightful discussion and deliberation than the footnote status they just got. And that's not even the whole of it.

The residue of candy paint and sippin' syrup and grills, grills, grills appears to be officially gone now, relegated to little more than "Hey, Remember When?" punchline chatter these days. Stagnation is gone. Creativity is back.

Mark it down: 2011 is ­going to be a monster.


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