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Dante Higgins, Houston's Underappreciated Man of the People

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In a strange twist in the career of Dante Higgins, he’s right back in underdog territory. Imagine his mental state when understanding that. Imagine his emotions when he learned that his friend, Michael Irving, had been shot and killed at the same church in Third Ward where he was the audio technician. Imagine Dante looking at all of the headlines and news reports that dug into Irving’s history and almost blamed his indiscretions for his own death. Imagine dealing with that and having it weigh on your heart every single day.

Those tethers of life have seemingly played a new aspect in Higgins’ life. His longtime girlfriend, the same one he rapped about with tenderness and calm on Rhymes For Months' “Prom Dress” back in 2012 is gone. That ACL injury that cost him some touring money, the ability to stretch out his ambitious debut album, The Dante Higgins Story, stifled him. Even last year’s pseudo-comeback, Good Forever, felt like a good autobiographical moment of truth, yet something felt amiss. Dante wasn’t exactly whole, and Irving’s death just made it worse.

Aligning with the Breadwinners gave Higgins a crew, yet the only association to them on Higgins King Pen EP comes via Paul Wall's “Play Dumb” feature. Everything else? It returns right back to Southlawn, back to working The Freshest MCs bars with Undergravity and letting Alicia James underscore Higgins’ pain and sorrow. In other words, King Pen feels as if Higgins just left the stage from the now-defunct Best Rapper in Texas series and immediately recorded this; his enunciation and country-boy twang is everywhere. “2Pac had a pre-monition,”  he says on the EP’s opening cut and runs on ending rhymes that his delivery double dribbles on purpose.

Higgins has made a habit of making the most mundane aspects of life into great songs. When Charity E. Vaughn, the noted local wunderkind who is a queen in the mostly “boys only” room of production, handles all of the production on King Pen, it allows Higgins’ storytelling to feel far realer than any amount of sneering bombast. Her production swims in ethos, punctuated keys and strings, with drums occasionally knocking to let the rest of the measure know they’re there. It all has feeling for Higgins. King Pen stabs and prods with Higgins breaking down the freedom of life to the structure of a McDonald’s order, where “McDonald’s Money” is no longer mythical, it’s right in your face. He only shows laziness when mentioning emojis as signifiers for facial reactions (the two emoji punchlines on the EP are one too damn many). He gets far more biting when the spirit of that young boy who got his bike stolen, his heart broken and his friend taken from him all arise.

“McDonald’s Drive Thru” essentially is the emotional center of the EP, the spark that leads to four tracks of Higgins at his best. It’s not unbridled fury without awareness, no. It’s not Russell Westbrook galloping to the paint, looking to detonate and nothing else. It’s the kind of polish Kyrie Irving showed at Duke during his 11-game apprenticeship. Where you know he’s right there and he’s only out here to get buckets. “McDonald’s Drive Thru”offers brevity; “Magix Studios” offers all of the tribute and gait of telling someone who’s no longer here to look out for you regardless. Higgins absolves his friend of his sins, understanding that we’re all human and mistakes come with the territory.

Yet on the EP’s closer, he’s asking far more questions with his teeth bare, not hidden. “Black Lives Matter,” on the surface, appears to be a moment for Higgins to highlight what the movement means to him. Instead, it’s a moment for him to question why the signifier means only one thing as opposed to everything. And in a way, he’s right.

Dante Higgins was raised in Southlawn, a section of south Houston boxed in by Yellowstone Blvd., Old Spanish Trail and even Scott Street. Friends of his share stories on Facebook about gang violence, random shootings and more. He prays for his old neighborhood in poetic readings and pushes for change. He’s part of the same Third Ward that claimed one of his good friends and the same one that he wonders about every day. “A black man broke in my house/ a black man broke in my car/ a black woman broke my heart/ some people that’s how evil they are/ but a white man ain’t done nothing to your brother thus far,” he raps. The victims of Southlawn violence aren’t the gentrifiers turning Third Ward into their idea of Brooklyn, it’s the people who identify and look like Dante Higgins. In his view, recording the worst of black people for Facebook validity or Instagram likes is harming. “All this beefin’ in the hood and we beefin’ with the wrong people!”

So what’s Higgins’ beef? Nothing. He’s been one of the city’s best observers for quite sometime, with a knack for crafting something literal out of what we take for granted. King Pen shouldn’t be personal, yet it is. It shouldn’t be Charity E. Vaughn adding the most somber soundtrack in Hig’s personal collection, yet that’s what happens. It’s Dante returning to have fun with making music again, even if he barely sounds like he’s having any.


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