A New Class of Rappers Finally Bucked Houston's Syrupy Stereotype This Year

Two thousand five seems like eons ago. That's when Houston rap, if you'll remember, exploded into the nation's consciousness, caricaturizing the 713 as a candy-painted city of overindulgence and megalomania.

Mind you, Houston was known to hip-hop cognoscenti well before then — UGK and the Geto Boys have long been cited as originators of the Southern sound — but somehow, almost mockingly, a charter class of kitschy local titans bombarded the game. Paul Wall, Mike Jones, Slim Thug, Chamillionaire and, to a lesser extent, Lil' Flip became the only H-town rappers that seemed to matter, our five diamond-toothed cultural ambassadors to the world beyond Loop 610.

But alas, that type of instantaneous recognition rarely lasts, and the Houston conglomerate gradually fell victim to its own ham-fisted success. People quickly soured on the scene and Houston was written off as dead, its trademark slowed-down swagger reduced to a novelty act. And recollecting the events of this year, it appears that the majority of '05's haymakers are still getting over the meltdown, if you will.

Paul Wall allowed 2008 to (mercifully) pass without releasing a solo project — although his Fast Life LP is due early next year. Mike Jones, now in his 17th minute of fame, seems to only get his name mentioned when someone is making jokes about his cinematic flub or his getting cold-cocked by Trae at the Ozone Awards.

Slim Thug and Lil' Flip released their usual stable of LPs and mixtapes, though none to any real acclaim. And even Chamillionaire, whose November Mixtape Messiah 5 proved to be his most affecting work since The Sound of Revenge, spent most of the year in silence. (Shining his Grammy and secretly laughing at former feud-mates Paul Wall and Mike Jones, no doubt.)

But Houston is nothing if not replete with talent. And while the legends had their say — Scarface reminded everyone that he's still the best lyricist Houston has ever seen with his swan song Emeritus, while Bun B released arguably his most well-rounded LP to date, II Trill — 2008 saw the rise of a new class of hip-­hoppers looking to buck the outwardly goofy archetype handed down to us after the boom of '05.

Z-Ro, Houston's most pathos-laden MC, earned the nod for Houston's "Best Rapper Unknown to the Majority of the Nation" with his official addition to his discography, Crack. He combined 'Face's impenetrable will, Bun's thematicism and his own seemingly congenital heartbreak into a garish display of unpredictable lyricism, dousing it with an oblique wont for fame uncommon to his work to produce the year's most heartrending album.

Sadly, Z-Ro is still, and will continue to be, too bleak to receive the acclaim he rightly deserves. Which should make for another great album next year, at least.

Z-Ro's somewhat less star-crossed cousin Trae, however, affirmed his intention to be king with his work on mixtapes The Beginning, Against Everything and the stellar It Is What It Is. At the beginning of his career, he was presumed largely to be Z-Ro incarnate; in 2008 Trae evolved a mixture of street credibility and pop accessibility that begs national recognition — a progression he began at the tail end of 2007 with the gruff (but not grim) Life Goes On.

Plus, Trae has a cartoon that details the events leading up to his punching Mike Jones in the nose, a moment highly symbolic of the end of the Class of '05's relevance. (Note: Slim Thug, who will always be cool, and Cham, set to release the already-anticipated Venom in 2009, not included.)

Meanwhile, Devin the Dude continued his ditzy dedication to the 'dro. While seemingly every other rapper was off trying to secure a Weezy verse or T-Pain chorus to ride to radio spins, Devin released Hi Life, Landing Gear and Smoke Sessions Vol. 1 within months of each other, 40 tracks of absurdly eccentric high-hop.

Flagshipping Houston's quickly growing backpacker hip-hop genre, Hueston Independent Spit District — think a Southern, more populated version of Little Brother — released soulful mid-year EP Summer Sessions, and confirmed local rappers are now just as likely to sample an Al Green song as chop and screw one.

Nosaprise, crazed with a clanging, thoughtful spit that makes his work immediately recognizable, released the heartfelt and thought-out Grown Folks Music. And Lower Life Form, Houston's answer to the Pharcyde, released Time Cards, a John Everyman album that immediately made you feel better about being behind on your light bill.

B L A C K I E, one of this year's most divisive experimental hip-hop acts, released mashed and distorted electronica LP Wilderness of North America; accordingly, the alternative scene raved. And while it wasn't as substantive as Patients of a Timeless Mind, reigning experimental sovereign Perseph One's '08 contribution, it helped legitimize the genre ­nonetheless.

(Also, B L A C K I E pretty much told us to fuck off after Wilderness received a less-than-glowing review, which made him seem considerably less contrived.)

The slim-fitted and quick-witted Fat Tony proved that, outside of Trae, he's the most likely to succeed of the new bunch. At his most fundamental, he sounds like a New Age version of Questionmark Asylum with more staying power, and his mixtape The Tipping Point Store & Fly 68 Presents...Fat Tony gave us "Rollin' Round," a Daft Punk-sampling jaunt that ranks among the year's best songs.

Tony's EP, Love Life, was also far from disappointing. If the music industry is just — which, well, never mind — when we write this article again next year, he won't be in the same position he's in now.

Numerous others' efforts warranted far more ink than they received: Hollywood F.L.O.S.S.'s Art or Fiscal Intelligence LP was strong; Lil' O gave us The Flood; G.R.I.T. Boys released bump- and drag-heavy Southside Living Legends; SPM managed to drop Last Chair Violinist from prison; Rob G's Power of the 16's was brawny as usual; Presto's The Prestige was a surprise; Sans Bayonet's Lucid Dreams was, at times, fantastic.

Still more: K-Otix's The Reason should certainly be mentioned somewhere; Fresh 2 Def Media & Hero's Stay Fresh Mixtape listens very well; K-Rino's Triple Darkness trilogy was noteworthy; and Nicolay and Kay's Timeline was outstanding. Just to name a few.

But the fact that so many were left out is more good than bad. Houston is rapidly evolving into a more rounded and — dare we say it — open-minded hip-hop city, represented now by more than just a furious five.

Two thousand five was eons ago, after all.

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Shea Serrano