New Houston Rap

Highs & Lows, According to DJ XO & Tony Del Freshco

DJ XO in last year's "Ridin' Dirty" video.
DJ XO in last year's "Ridin' Dirty" video. YouTube
The funniest thing about trends is that they of course have an interesting life span. A decade ago, rap had entered this weird phase where rappers would prefer they be called rock stars, even though some rappers weren’t even stars to begin with. People implemented heavier guitar work, club singles began filtering in Nirvana and wallet chains and wears fresh out of Thrasher magazine. Was it as egregious and annoying as people picking up the Iron Maiden font and throwing it on distressed T-shirts? Not really, but it was damn close. Ultimately the phase died, but still, it existed, and as with most trends, we let it bloom before it wore out its welcome.

This year, like any before it, is going to be a weird proving ground for local hip-hop. Different lines to success have been carved out. More artists are finding that the niche things that make them great will eventually lead them somewhere outside of the abyss. And two of those people who have managed to figure out themselves long before other aspects got in the way are DJ XO & Tony Del Freshco.

For a number of reasons, XO and Freshco are complete opposites. XO was the one last year who managed to take a rather hypnotic anthem nationwide. And because it was released near the very end of 2015, a lot of Reloaded got ignored. A shame, mainly because the tape featured a strong guest verse from Propain and XO mixing up club-fare R&B with hazy atmospherics. The goal for XO, at least on a minor level, was to land a song that took him beyond a favorable Soundcloud page. It worked and in a world where certain acts are still attempting to find middle ground between singing and ego-driven braggadocio, XO is comfortable behind that wheel; at times, too comfortable.

A few days after the new year, XO released YL2, the sequel to his Young Legend. Bet you didn’t even know Young Legend came out less than six months ago. Bet you also didn’t know it was mostly produced by XO as a placebo of late-night cruise music dressed as R&B. Propain returns for “My City” along with GT Garza. Same for Sosamann for “Neva Be the Same” and “Can I." Deadend Redd and Jas also find space to contribute on the 12-track project. The immediate question everybody who hasn’t followed XO with trained intent will ask you is, “Is there another hit single on this?” The answer to that is, “Why are you immediately searching for hits as opposed to enjoying the whole thing and picking favorites?”

The main rule of thumb in XO’s world is to keep it playa. At all costs. Pulling up to the club with your gas tank on E but you know your car? Keep it playa. Know what you can do when off a fifth or more of Henn? Keep it playa. Flip a bit of Travis Scott’s “Pick Up the Phone” for a sex ode on “Skirt”? Keep. It. Playa. If there were an analytic or statistical measure on the idea of “keep it playa," XO probably would come somewhere near the top. Almost Aaron Rodgers-like in terms of “keeping it playa."

On “Neva Be the Same,” XO and Sosamann attempt to re-create the energy of “Off the Lot,” albeit with a much slower, deliberate pace. The both of them can reflect on times being broke versus their current situations, a running theme in XO’s world. He wants to enjoy a lifestyle, plus the spoils and the sex that come with it. He’ll never stop looking back at what could have been for a boy from Alief — foreign cars, girls liking you for the smallest of reasons, so on and so forth. On “Stylin’,” the SWV/“Weak”-sampling track near the end of the tape, XO admits he didn’t mean to stunt on ’em or make the girls moist. He spends the glut of YL2 stacking platitudes for himself and by the end, when he’s climbing on top of “Ball & Parlay” samples to do it one more time, he’s got Propain and GT Garza to finish it. How long has Pro been at it? “Since Paul Wall was wearing braids,” he affirms. Garza agrees, still trying to move a mile a minute even when the rest of the world is slow around him.

If YL2 is talking about cash, then Tony Del Freshco’s How Did We Get Here is every bit the Drunken Boxer turned braided Houston rap fashionista could have imagined. There’s not going to be another project released within Houston limits that starts off with a slowed-down version of Paramore’s “Decode,” then jumps into questioning relationships in a blunt yet honest manner. Then again, Tony Del Freshco has always rapped with a slick northside aggressiveness to him. Even when he’s singing like a lounge singer gone off the Jack, he admits that “the shit that I’m dealing with is real." He’s not allergic to relationships, but he’s weary of companionship beyond the occasional grasp for a “new girl with new pussy."

The pain that exists on How Did We Get Here was created by outside forces. He lost his friend and fellow rapper Antawayne nearly two years ago to suicide. He’s still heartbroken over an old ex and then some. “I’ve been dealing with a lot,” he cuts on “All In Stride.” “Addicted to that therapy, I see my daughter turn 11, worry about her saving funds and if she want them new 11s.” Del Freshco’s been at it since Ahead of Class was angling for plays and to be heard by any means. But here, at least on the early half of HDWGH, the northsider is looking at different women thinking they’d replace the woman he loved.

“Lost my job and she didn’t even walk away,” he exhales on “Everything” with a guitar melody ripped right from Justin Bieber’s “All That Matters." He snaps back with this weird need for machismo and adulation on the gothic “I Already Gave You Dick.” “Girl, I need to focus,” he admits. But that main focus pretty much adheres to getting money, and wastefully blowing it in Onyx. Why? Because Tony Del Freshco knows the rule mandated by Chad Lamont Butler — “Everybody Wanna Ball.”

The clearest argument for Tony breaking out of his singular gaze? Dollar bills. Making money. Wearing select fashions and chanting along with washed-out drums and chimes. “Money Machina” packs in all of del Freshco’s ills and transforms them into a hedonistic, glossy rap record. EDF jumps in wanting Tae Heckard as opposed to Draya and doesn’t give a damn about a record deal. How does producer Mike Red choose to back-door all of this? With a Pimp C spoken-word, of course. “Supreme features is a horror flick/ When I show my dick, bitch I’m Michael Myers,” Tony raps in the least romantic way you could imagine. The emotional yo-yo of HDWGH is scary to consider. Remember, we started this tape with a cut-up version of Paramore’s “Decode." How does it end, following the K.P. & Envy sample of “Shorty Swing My Way” (which we may need to retire)? A slowed-up, drunken version of Adele’s “Hello." Tony Del Freshco is a mess out here; venting through it all may be his lone salvation.


Doeman, “Legends Never Die”
Just before the New Year, Doeman lost a fan and supporter to gun violence in Thomas Gamez and his baby cousin Anissa. “It’s gon’ take the man in me to conquer this insanity” is the strongest reminder he’s got that he’s doing this DYNA thing not just for him but for a whole bunch of people. It’s as heartbreaking as it is beautiful.

OneHunnidt feat. Big Fatts, “Kamikaze”
Hey, a sort-of world premiere. Both OneHunnidt and Bigg Fatts are letting off new tapes this year in 7 Years and The Book of Ratchet, respectively. And because they figure they’ve got more chemistry than not, they’re dropping a joint EP titled Smokey & Craig. “Kamikaze” is easily a Big Fatts show while trying from Aruba to Bed-Stuy, all in the name of a deadline. Nonsensical big-boy raps.

Rizzoo Rizzoo feat. K Camp, “Splash”
The longer Rizzoo Rizzoo pushes back Drip Flair, the more we get outrageous new singles from him. Yes, “Splash” is heavy with ad libs, with “Ferragamo on my shorts” being the most out-there stunt bar, but the JRag2x beat can’t be ignored.

Roosh Williams feat. Ben Al, “NYW”
When he’s not studying for a law degree, Roosh Williams still can try and make a ’97 Suburban sound like the most beautiful, menacing thing in the world.

Ugly God, “Water”
We’re going to be dealing with Ugly God, his zen-like idea of remaining himself and then some in 2017. Even though it dropped near the middle of 2016, “Water” is the safest introduction I can give you to the northside act. Once you get the “Thanks Ugly God” tag stuck in your head, you’ll be Milly Rocking to it too.
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Brandon Caldwell has been writing about music and news for the Houston Press since 2011. His work has also appeared in Complex, Noisey, the Village Voice & more.
Contact: Brandon Caldwell