Screwston, Texas

Five Spot: Lil Keke's Don't Mess With Texas

Welcome back to Five Spot. Every Friday, we'll examine a recent bit of music news and, sometimes awkwardly, tie it to a bit of Houston rap. It's five videos and occasional cussing. Send tips to [email protected].

Last week we wrote about ESG's Ocean of Funk, which spiraled into an email conversation with several different regular emailers/local rappers (and Matt Sonzala) about the 20 greatest Houston rap albums of all time. That's the "recent bit of news" that we're going to use to segue into a discussion about Lil' Keke's Don't Mess Wit Texas. How self-indulgent are we?

Lil' Keke has been underrated for his entire career. Even when "Southside" made him a regional superhero back in 1997-98, it was the wrong type of fame. "Southside" managed to be both conventional (neighborhood-specific shout outs, car talk, etc.) and unconventional (minimal trunk rattling capabilities, high pitched piano work) at the same time. It was incredibly instinctive.

You didn't want to dance when it came on; you had to dance. And it caught fire so fast that a lot of people who didn't normally listen to "that" type of music were listening to it. So when the immediate charm of it wore off (before it settled into the "this song should be universally respected and recognized as a watershed moment in Houston rap" category a few years later), those people seemed to automatically disregard the rest of the album. That's the wrong type of fame.

At any rate, Keke is not underrated in the same sense that someone like AZ or Masta Ace is underrated. His lyricism, delivery and general production have been rated justly for the duration of his career. He's pretty good at all most of the time, stellar at one or two occasionally, and off the charts with all three every so often (this happened again with 2007's "Got To Be A G"). If you put some numbers to it, he'd almost certainly have a higher Good Song to Bad Song percentage rate than a lot of artists that are heavy on the radio now.

But he's very John Everyman in his essence. His flow doesn't rumble under your feet like Z-Ro's, or rat-a-tat at your eardrum like Bun B's; it sits right in the middle, which is where a lot of unimportant rappers fall, so he's lumped in with them.

However Keke manages to sustain a feeling of importance despite this, which makes him subtly imposing, and that might be more impressive than being overtly imposing. Remember Eddie Johnson from those late '90s Rockets teams? He played 17 seasons in the NBA, was No. 22 on the All-time NBA Scorers list at the time of his retirement, and had one of the best "I just ripped your heart out" moments in Rockets playoff history against the Jazz in 1997.

But Johnson wasn't terribly athletic, so when you watched him play you never got the feeling that he was doing anything you probably couldn't do yourself (until you actually got out there and tried to do it). And you can't lionize somebody that you don't think is more talented than you are. It's counterintuitive. That's how it is with Keke. That's why he's underrated.

For your consideration, we present the five best tracks from 1997's Don't Mess Wit Texas, which has aged to be one of the all-time great Houston rap records.

"Southside": Nearly 13 years later, we still find it necessary to recite the "Polo on my body and Nikes on my feet" every once and a while. Say it. It's fun.

"If You Wanna": The first thing we notice when we listen to this now is that the melody of the hook sounds an awful lot like Remy Shand on his 2002 semi-hit "Take a Message." We've spent the better part of six years making jokes about him whenever we got the chance, but if he was somehow influenced by Lil' Keke we would like to rescind them all. It was still ridiculous for him to wear that knit hat the video though. There's no getting around that.

"Bounce and Turn": Phaz is near perfect here. We mean, how many guys do you know that can sound cool singing "Rub a dub, scrub, scrub"? Anybody know what happened to that guy?

"Serious Smoke": Why don't people make six minute songs anymore? And how shitty is it that nobody will ever be able to call Big Moe wreck on a track again? Damn.

"It's Goin' Down": In retrospect, it's easy to recognize that the strength of this song is that it it's cool without feeling like it's trying to be cool, which is exactly why Keke is Keke. But when we first heard this, we thought it was cool because of the way that he said "down." We were either much dumber ten years ago, or are much douchebaggier now.

Have a safe weekend.

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Shea Serrano