Mike Jones! Who?

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They say that Mike Jones fell off, but I'm so on in my city
— Mike Jones in "Swagger Right," from The Voice

The parking lady at the Arena Theatre is hating on Mike Jones.

"I don't like that hip-hop, now," she says. "Especially when it don't make no sense."


Mike Jones

It costs $5 to park. The concert, on a Monday night in early May, is free. It's Jones's first in Houston since his new album, The Voice, dropped, and the homecoming is long overdue. After his debut studio release went double-platinum in 2005, a year that saw him headline the BET music awards and rule everything from video to radio to the budding rap ring-tone industry, making his incessantly repeated "Who? Mike Jones!" into an anthem, Jones failed to put out his second until just a week ago.

In the interim, he was punched in the face by menacing local rapper Trae backstage at the George R. Brown Convention Center when Houston hosted the Ozone Awards last August. His second planned album, 2007's The American Dream, was released instead as an EP (and self-starred straight-to-DVD biopic) amid label politics, but Jones had also angered so many on his furious ascent that it was nearly impossible to promote. The head of the industry's most powerful deejay association, for instance, tried to keep Jones off the radio.

Jones went from multiple houses and 11 cars to one of each. A friend even stole his trademark $15,000 chain. It said, in huge, diamond-encrusted letters, "Ice Age," the name of Jones's short-lived nightclub, aborted clothing line and once-hyped record label that never got off the ground and currently includes only him.

The 5'9'' Jones has gone from borderline obese to noticeably slim, losing 100 pounds in just six months, he claims, by eating Subway and running on a treadmill. Former friends, who regard him as a possibly diabolical liar and phony (he refers to them as thieves and "roach-ass niggas"), attribute the weight loss instead to stress or even illegal diet pills — as in most matters, anything, really, but what he says.

But the new album has opened at No. 12 on the Billboard charts. And just before show time, the backstage area at Arena Theatre is packed with excited fans.

Jones puts on a white T-shirt and bounces out of his dressing room and into the crowded hallway. He snaps into an identical pose and expression for photo after photo. His right arm wraps around the fan. His left hand makes an "H" for H-town, just below his chin. His smile is broad and hungry. His eyes widen, shiny black marbles surrounded by a cartoon white.

Jones speaks — whether to friends, fans, radio jocks or hotel clerks — much like he raps. Syllables and words muddle together and burst out, mostly in scattershot boasts and rants, with a nasal drone that makes his among the most unique voices in rap. Catch phrases and hooks, and his name and phone number, are peppered throughout, as in his new song "Swagg Thru Da Roof":

"2-8-1, holla, 2O6-4336 and I'ma come quick / And I'm who? Mike Jones! Who? Mike Jones! Who? Mike Jones! / (I said) And I'm who? Mike Jones! Who? Mike Jones! And I like yo styyyyle / Shorty got swagg through the roof / She likes to pop tags me too, you know how we do / Let the top down on the goop / Bobby swagga when I grind with you."

Jones explains the song like this:

"I wanted to make a song called swagg through the roof, because I felt that her swagg was through the roof. And this ain't a record about my swagg, this a record about her, about her swagg, and I'm feelin' like her swagg is through the roof, like the roof can't even hold her swagg. Like if you close the roof, it's tryin' to get up out that mothafucka it's so hot, you feel me?"

Any coherence emerges from the endless, looping repetition of a theme central to Jones's music, and, seemingly, also his life — that people hate him and try to hold him back, but he succeeds regardless, strictly on his own. Jones seems to make little distinction, in fact, between his everyday existence and his rap.

"I wanna be next to you-hoooooo," he will sing to himself, head down and swinging from side to side, as he wanders around the parking lot outside a club. "Even the Bible says people will always be hatin'," he'll claim, tapping a Bible in a departure lounge at an airport, a bulky set of rosary beads around his neck. "Man, I didn't go multiplatinum for these airlines to be messin' up my connections," he'll complain after missing a connecting flight.

"We about to bring the cluuuub back," Jones says as he makes his way through the backstage crowd. "Club Ice Age."

Then he is surrounded by his crew at the double doors, focused and ready, his left hand clutching a microphone. The doors open, and Jones rolls out into the total darkness. A few girls scream near the stage. There is a flash like lightning. The 2,800-seat arena is almost empty.

Cocaine, I used to move / Until I grabbed the mike and started actin' a fool / High school was cool, but I didn't finish / I dropped out and hit the block and started stackin' my spinach / I'm not in it for the fame; I'm in it for the change / Studewood, North Main, Mike Jones my name / Who? Mike Jones / Who? Mike Jones / Who? Mike Jones / Who? Mike Jones, Jones.

— Mike Jones in "Guilty," from Ballin Underground

As Mike Jones became bigger and bigger, Michael Watts was increasingly being approached by boys from the hood of Studewood where Jones claimed to have hustled drugs on the block. They had a question.

"Who the fuck is Mike Jones?"

Watts hails from nearby Rosewood, in North Houston. Due to a sometimes violent rivalry with the South, home to DJ Screw and his crew, the area was at first left out of the warped, slowed-down mix-tape movement that Screw pioneered. North-siders listened to the music just like everyone else in the city, just in secret, because a lot of the rhymes were about how they sucked. So in the mid-­'90s, Watts began making screw music himself.

Where Screw, who passed away in 2000, took pride in doing each record in one take, using only freestyles, Watts let his rappers come with written verses, and he edited, remixed and remastered. He made sure the lyrics had a broad appeal, and brought CDs with him when he booked gigs outside Houston. Each disc, along with his Web site, had his pager number, and soon Watts was taking his Jeep to places like Tyler, Texas, and Alexandria, Louisiana.

"We love our Houston music here. And the sad thing about it, we don't really get any exposure," Watts says. "What's limiting the exposure? It's just commercialism, man."

By the turn of the century, Watts had created an underground network for his independent Swishahouse label that stretched across the country, and artists like Slim Thug, Chamillionaire and Paul Wall were enjoying relative wealth and fame outside the mainstream. Then, almost at once, all of Watts's rappers left, over contract disputes, to join bigger labels or to start record labels of their own.

Soon after, Watts caught wind of a rapper who seemed to be commercialism incarnate, wearing T-shirts with his name and phone number, making personalized songs for strippers across the city and shouting his name, over and over and over again.

Watts was at once impressed and perplexed by his budding new star. For a novice rapper, Jones came in with a detailed business plan, and he knew the ins and outs of the industry better than most veterans. And Watts couldn't pinpoint just where he'd come from. Jones had a way of talking around the question.

"He'll run you in circles," Watts says.

Michael Ansara Jones dreamed of being an NBA star who rapped on the side. Former friends remember a kid who freestyled in the cafeteria and came to school dressed and ready to ball. He wore an authentic No. 45 Jordan jersey before authentic jerseys were in style, black with red pinstripes, and the sneakers to match. And he was good. The legendary street-baller Hot Sauce, who played with Jones in a celebrity game well after he'd put on weight, says, simply, "Mike Jones got game."

Jones moved a lot, though, and what he calls "politics" (transfer rules) limited him to YMCA leagues after his freshman year. Jones dropped out as a senior, in 1999. He says he tried jobs at fast-food restaurants but quickly learned, "It's like Biggie said: You either got a jump shot or you sling the crack rock."

T. Brown, a close friend who would become Jones's hype man (the two have since had a bitter falling out), remembers that he and Jones lived together at a friend's house for a time, and later in a car. They had jobs at a Compaq plant, waking at 6 a.m. to work on an assembly line. Eventually, they started hustling full-time. But instead of selling drugs on the street, they were slinging cell phones from an apartment off Antoine Drive.

Jones sold dime bags here and there for about six months, Brown says, but mainly the two bought hot Sidekicks and sold them off cheap. Between that and more serious scams Brown won't discuss on the record, he says, the two skinny kids were bringing in thousands of dollars a week. All they had to do was sit around, collect the money and order pizza.

"They was like Ninja Turtles with they pizza," one mutual friend says, remembering boxes stashed beneath the sofa — something Brown, now easily 250 pounds, doesn't deny.

Jones was a grandma's boy. During his frequent visits to her house in Studewood, often over games of dominoes, he says, she encouraged him to pull himself together by pursuing rap. She passed away before he made it big, and Jones pays tribute to her with heartfelt songs — "Grandma" and "Grandma II" — on his albums. He credits her for his entire career, from providing the initial push to advising him to use his real name and even make songs for the girls at the strip clubs.

Before Jones went by Mike Jones, though, he was Sache, the Texas Lone Ranger. He and friends such as Brown, Michael Workman and T. Flowers, who would go on to become his business partner and manager, made a few attempts at rap groups, and MC Sache even appeared on a locally produced album as part of a quartet called "Souf Folk." Jones tried hard to get a major deal. When he couldn't, he faked it.

Former friend C.T., who has "Ice Age" tattooed on his hand, remembers Jones stopping a local concert with the following announcement: "We want everybody to know. It's going down for real. We just signed a deal for 15 million!"

C.T. and the others celebrated with their families. Then they waited. During a supposed trip to New York to work out the details, Jones was caught instead at a nearby motel.

"We found out this nigga been lyin' the whole time," C.T. says. "We done threw parties and stuff, bought all types of food."

DJ Big Red had a gig at the Ice Cream Castle, a small but popular strip club on the North side. One day Jones came in with his demo, and Red turned him down. But Jones came back, again and again.

"He wasn't giving up," Red remembers. "He always came to me with another CD. It was the same songs, but just a different color."

Eventually, the girls were dancing to Jones's songs, and so was the entire club. Red put Jones on his mix tape. He began bringing him to shows, driving to the apartment to give Jones a lift. A childhood friend of Watts, he then introduced Jones to T. Farris, the Swishahouse A&R man who eventually signed him to the label.

Red traveled with Jones as his career took off, occasionally answering his famous phone, which was eventually ringing off the hook. In the summer of 2005, Jones finally got his major record deal, with Warner Bros.

"From then on, I don't know how his career went. I just know what I seen," Red says. "One moment you're there, and the next you're not."

"I'm gonna stand next to these speakers so y'all can fuckin' hear me!"

At the Arena Theatre, Jones's microphone cuts in and out. When it's on, it's too loud, and his words are nearly inaudible. Some of Jones's friends wander aimlessly on the stage. But the 200 or so fans are on their feet and packed around it. Jones raps hard, like he can't see past them, squinting and scowling, rocking furiously at the waist.

"I done did this before!" he screams into the mike. "I don't need no help! 2-8-1, 2-0-6..."

A few hours later, Jones walks through the after-party with a bowl of Honeycombs. There are about 25 people inside Jones's modest mansion, friends and a few girls his hype man Jaime Pena (who is often confused for Paul Wall on the road) managed to scrounge from the show. Everyone is in the large kitchen, casually drinking Budweiser and smoking blunts. Jones plops down at the counter, eyes drooping from the weed. He finishes his cereal and reclaims his place in the center of the room.

Jones plays DJ with the stereo against the wall, singing along to songs such as Lil' Flip's "We Blow Endo" freestyle. People crowd around to watch.

Lo Key stands off to the side. "Mike gave me that name," he says, pointing to the letters stitched across his backwards cap. When Jones blew up, Lo Key mostly kept out of the spotlight. But he remembers meeting Snoop Dogg when Jones and his crew traveled to California. He got to wear the Ice Age chain. He was in — or at least at — every video. You can check for his hat.

Lo Key looks at least 30. Other than Jones and his longtime girlfriend Alicia — who wears oversized sunglasses and has "Mike Jones" tattooed across the back of her neck — the rest of the people at the party are much younger. They treat Jones like someone they know from TV. Pena was brought on within the last year.

Jones switches over to instrumentals, changing the discs often, because most of them skip. He starts to freestyle, his hands shaking fast at his sides, like he's just grabbed a hot pan, whenever he's about to unleash a great flow. His verses are full of rants about haters and doubters.

Pena and a few bold guests join in. Some are pretty good, and Jones is polite, letting them cut him off and jamming extra hard to their raps. They go for more than an hour. Then the onlookers break off and head home. The freestylers begin to drift away, too.

Jones stays in the center of the kitchen, eyes pressed shut, hands flailing almost nonstop, killing it to the skipping beats.

[A phone rings twice.]


Mike Jones?

Naw man this Magno.

Hey is Mike Jones there with you?

Fo sho, you know we're ­hangin' together like two titties.

— "Skit Intro," from Mike Jones & Magno: 1st Round Draft Picks

"Lil mamma! Lil ma!" Magno shouts."I got this music!"

The woman walks into the Greenspoint Fast Track station, which is buzzing on a warm Friday night. Small-time drug deals go down around the pumps. Magno stands along the outside wall, leaning on a forgotten Houston Chronicle bin, on top of which sits a small stack of his CDs. Ten bucks apiece.

"I make 100 percent of my livin' from straight grindin'," Magno says.

He wears an oversized white T-shirt with baggy green shorts and a white cap. A green do rag hangs down from his neck. On his feet are a green pair of slippers with sneaker soles — "Road edition," he says. "Specially made for a hood nigga who wears his house shoes all day long."

Magno started rapping on the Internet. As a high-schooler, he'd enter text battles online and usually win. Then he submitted audio to sites like rapboard.com using a $5 mike. When the feedback was good, he let his friends hear. They persuaded him to make a tape, which was in his pocket the day he met Farris on the North Harris Community College campus. For the first few months after he joined Swishahouse, Magno was the only artist on the label.

One day Mike Jones walked into the studio. He and Magno knew each other from the basketball courts and immediately hit it off. They plugged into the Swishahouse network and began touring together. Magno calls it rap school. He, Jones and Farris would drive to every show, selling CDs at gas stations along the way to earn extra money (and splitting value meals to save it) and making appearances at record stores and radio stations to get exposure.

At first, they faced angry fans who wondered where all their favorite rappers had gone. But the endless grind eventually paid off. Jones says their chemistry onstage even carried over to the court, where the two were an unstoppable team. He gave Magno — who had been going by Magnificent — his nickname, saying he needed something with more clip.

Rap aficionados around Houston still revere Magno's music, which combines clever wordplay and a conversational East Coast flow with a distinct Southern lean. But Jones had some impressive rhymes himself. Watts says he had an entire hard drive of them that Jones wouldn't let him use, preferring to keep his style, as he describes it now, "simple and plain."

"People don't understand, man. Mike has a lot of talent," Magno says. "In person — when you get Mike in person — he's one of the best freestylers out there. You have to stop him; he'll keep going."

Jones was all business, never drinking or using drugs, and sticking fast to his accessible image. He refused to wear expensive clothes or jewelry even after the money started rolling in. Instead, Magno remembers a modestly dressed Jones keeping up to $10,000 on his person, in crisp rolls spread out in different pockets, to surprise people who still took him for broke. He'd sign every autograph after shows, no matter how many hours it took.

In February of 2003, after seven months together on the road, Jones and Magno released their first album, 1st Round Draft Picks. It sold 10,000 copies in its first week, then another 10,000 in its second, incredible numbers for an independent release. Soon the crowds were singing the lyrics to their songs. And they were also chanting: "Who? Mike Jones!"

When promoters came calling to Farris, Magno remembers, they were increasingly asking only for Jones. ("That's just what Mike used to tell him," Alicia says. "They was asking for both of them.") Farris became distant, and Jones and Farris soon began leaving for weekend trips on their own. At the concerts, Jones would perform songs from their album, rapping Magno's verses, or just cutting them out, and promoting his upcoming mix tape Ballin Underground.

"Mike's a manipulator, man. And I knew what he was doing," Magno says. "Cuz I know Mike. Like you know your buddy, man."

G-Dash, the Swishahouse CEO who handles its business side, remembers sitting Jones and Magno down to discuss a solution. Jones, who was drawing up to $20,000 a show, could bring Magno along for a small percentage. Jones refused to negotiate.

Jones thinks any criticism is ridiculous.

"I was tryin' to get in on my own while mine was hot," he says. "I thought I signed my own contract. I thought I came into this game myself. I thought I'd leave myself."

When Ballin Underground dropped in June of 2003, selling an unheard-of 250,000 copies, Jones was on his way to unprecedented underground success. One promoter compares Jones's first visit to Cleveland, which came before his deal with Warner Bros., to the arrival of the Beatles.

Jones was quickly taking over the label. On late 2003's wildly popular Swishahouse mix The Day Hell Broke Loose 2, Jones was featured on 13 of 15 songs, including the seminal "Still Tippin'" — a track that featured verses from Jones, Slim Thug and Paul Wall, along with a mesmerizing, crawling beat and screwed hook, and was credited to Jones.

Magno, meanwhile, had his verse cut from the song and was featured on just two tracks in all. As the deal with Warner Bros. approached — which G-Dash negotiated for Swishahouse, in order to extend Jones's contract — Magno was bounced from the label.

"The biggest misconception is that Mike's changed," Magno says. "Mike ain't changed. He's the same person he's always been. It's just your expectations have changed since he got big. If you're stingy, and you're broke, will anyone ever find out?

"To be successful in the game, you gotta damn well be a whore-ass nigga. You might have to forget about a few people. You might have to beep a few people out."

Lil daddy you can tell I'm ballin' / From the way I'm flossin' 84s I'm crawlin' / Screens fallin' as I slide up and down your block / With a chain full of rocks and princess cuts in my watch

— "Flossin," from Who Is Mike Jones?

It was late 2005. Jones was in his driveway, washing his cars. There was the Phantom, the Hummer, the Lamborghini, the Range Rover — 11 in all.

"Just all of them out there, just washin' them," Jones remembers. "Just feelin' good."

His manager called in a panic. Jones had forgotten that evening's show, which may have been in Iowa. When he arrived at the airport, all the commercial flights had left. He paid $30,000, he says, to charter his own plane.

"Got off the plane, they zoomed me there, people was screamin', passin' out. The camera was rollin'. I'm like damn, dog, we made it. Paid us 60 stacks to come there and do the full," Jones says.

"Whoooosh. I felt like — goddamn — one of them rock and roll dudes. What's that dude's name, Bruce Spring — Springsteen? It was crazy, man. City for city we was goin' from DUB car shows to Jimmy Kimmel to 106 & Park. I was on 106 & Park every other day. We took away the screen."

Jones was bringing in all kinds of money even before the deal. He had a platinum grill in his mouth, a fancy watch on his wrist and a diamond-encrusted Ice Age chain.

He'd hit unexpected turbulence at the height of his underground success, in the form of Chamillionaire's The Mixtape Messiah in early 2005. The album's three discs were almost entirely devoted to intricate and specific take-downs of Jones — for, among other things, lying about his past, his dealings with Magno and his outlandish shit-talking and braggadocio, extreme even for a rapper, which quite possibly ignited the feud.

But "Still Tippin'" was picking up incredible steam. It got constant play on radio and BET, and so it was Jones's hype that drew the major labels to Houston and brought its post-screw style into the mainstream.

Craig Baylis was a product manager with Warner Bros. at the time. He viewed Jones as the "ideal artist," he says. "A person that truly embodies that 'you don't grind you don't shine' mantra [which Jones has tattooed on his arm]. He was actually somewhat of a motivational beacon for us, not just in the building but for artists throughout the industry."

Jones headlined the BET awards that year, and the powerful network was fully behind him. Picking up on his cell-phone legend, Verizon wanted him as a spokesman. He guest-starred on Prison Break. The offers seemed endless.

"Mike Jones was that dude. All the agencies wanted him," Baylis says.

Warner Bros. had just returned to urban music after a long hiatus. Its new, instantly profitable artist was the franchise player. If Jones had a question or problem, he could go directly to the people at the top. Now he answered only to himself.

"And that's when all hell broke loose," Baylis says.

Slice was Jones's road manager and personal DJ when things started falling apart. (Jones and Farris had split on bad terms.) For the first few months, he remembers, Jones grinded so hard he barely slept.

But as 2005 became 2006, Jones began to blow off the little things, like signings and mom-and-pop record shop stops, Slice and others say. Then he blew off Best Buy. He began to enrage top radio DJs by missing promotional stops or, worse, demanding money for them — something Slice compares to injecting oneself with HIV. He'd make promises, then drop out of touch when it was time to follow through.

("I lose phones like I lose socks," Jones says.)

By the time Jones was set to roll out his second studio release — he'd wrestled creative control away from Swishahouse — he had burned enough bridges to inspire the following in-house Warner Bros. e-mail addressed to its top urban executives:

"The Rap Department is also running into bad relationships between mixers and Mike Jones. Including Tony Neal, Head of The Core Dj' s, a crew of DJ's consisting of 200 Jocks. Tony is adamant about telling his Dj's not to play the Mike Jones record due to unfulfilled promises made by Mike Jones in the past.

"Myself and Kevin Black are flying Tony Neal to LA for a personal sit down with Mike Jones. But this is just one situation of several that we are running into from engagements not made and/or promises not filled in the mixshow community."

At concerts, Slice, Brown and Workman would arrive early to set up. They'd get onstage with their Ice Age chains, unsure of whether Jones would show. When he didn't, they'd be accosted. Guys threatened them. Girls cursed them out.

"People was coming out and throwing shit at us. We were like sitting ducks," Slice says.

Eventually, Slice says, he'd field calls from angry promoters demanding Jones return their up-front money (typically half). Only Slice couldn't help them. Jones had simply stopped returning his calls, and instructed the rest of his crew to do the same.

"He started x-ing me out first," Slice says. "Then he started x-ing everyone else out."

G-Dash, who says he stepped in on similar calls directed at Farris, swears Jones even had a special trick for avoiding calls — he'd answer, say hello and then somehow cross the lines.

"Mike will fucking shake you like Michael Jordan," Slice says.

Jones's crew — notably Slice and rapper King Mello, Jones's protégé — was supposed to come into its own on Ice Age Volume 2 (Volume 1 was the strip-club mix). It had drawn considerable interest. The songs were ready, the pre-orders were in and offers were on the table. Jones strung it out until it faded away.

"A lot of people might bash him, but, I mean, it's a lot to handle. And sometimes he would do shit to piss people off," says Flowers, who now lives in Atlanta and, though he last spoke to Jones about a year ago, still considers him family. "I understood [his ways] more than anybody else, and sometimes I didn't even understand it. But it always came out right at the end when we were doing it. So we would ride together."

Most successful rappers put their entourage on salary. But Jones insisted on paying people like Brown and Workman by show, and he wouldn't pay them much. They say he'd hold onto their money and just pay their bills, leaving them dependent on him for spending money. K.D., the barber who accompanied Jones to the BET awards, says the whole crew would come to his shop together for cuts. Jones would pull out his wad of cash and pay, as if they were his kids. G-Dash remembers that if someone was hungry, he'd have to wait for Jones to eat.

"He been like that forever. He didn't change," admits Brown, who dropped out of pharmacy school to join the entourage full-time. "You see all the lights and cameras, and you don't know what to do."

With the album stalled and shows drying up, Jones began to run short on money.

"We had 11 cars, and they all had to come back," says Alicia, who recently had a messy breakup with Jones. "My house [Jones had bought her a big one on two acres in Missouri City] got foreclosed — and they put me out."

By the summer of 2008, Jones was living in a condo and driving a Cadillac and a Le Sabre. Brown had already bolted, and Workman would leave within a couple of weeks ("Wastin' my time, wastin' my life," Workman says now). Over the past year, Jones had become close with a friend of Workman's, whom Jones's old crew refers to simply as a "get-it guy." One night, Workman says, the three smoked weed and passed out in front of the television as usual. When Workman and Jones awoke the next morning, the friend and the Ice Age chain were gone.

Brown says he'd tried to steal the chain himself, but it was at the jeweler the day he went to get it.

"Before I leave, I'm fin to leave this all with something," he remembers thinking.

They smile in my face, behind me they hate, they want what I got but don't want to grind, they just want to shine / (Preach!) / They wishin' they was the man that I am while they still the man that I was, are you feelin' me cuz? / (Preach!) / They want me to feed 'em thinkin' I need 'em, but I don't, and I won't let yo yappin' stop me from rappin'. / I'm in the booth speakin' the opposite of a lie, no lie, I'm just speakin' the truth.

— Mike Jones in "Preach (Acapella)," from Runnin tha Game

Mike Jones is locked inside his mansion. A large man, Jones's younger brother, stands at the door and stares out the glass.

Jones sits at the kitchen table next to a box of dominoes, which peek out from a plastic window in the lid. The alarm beeps once every 30 seconds, as if Jones long ago gave up on turning it off and got used to the sound. It is three weeks after the album's release. It has dropped from 12 to 60 and off the charts.

In front of Jones are two small bags of Sun Chips and a box of gingerbread cookies. He finishes one bag, then the other, then the box of cookies as he talks, often with his mouth full. He drinks the crumbs from the bags of chips.

"If you wanna be a rapper," Jones says, "be prepared for pol-o-ticks."

Jones blames the four-year delay on Warner Bros., saying the label wouldn't support songs like "Next to You" and "Cuddy Buddy," R&B-heavy efforts (which have both been hits) that are a stark contrast to his gritty and warped debut. Jones says he makes songs now that appeal to the nation, not just Houston. He says his ungrateful friends — for whom he paid rent and bills — robbed him and left him when the going got tough.

He bangs both hands on the table, over and over again, and explains the hate. It hasn't changed much since he was selling CDs from his backpack years ago.

"People hate on Mike Jones and what he done, but I sold 2 million. People hated on Mike Jones back then, but I still sold all my CDs. So I don't trip. Because you could hate, but at the end of the day the numbers prove that Mike Jones is still relevant and supposed to be here...You know what I'm saying?"

Jones says he's become a target, referring to the incident with Trae. With him backstage, where his nose bled as camera phones flashed, were his brother and mom.

But this, Jones claims, is right where he wants to be. He predicts a new record deal that will let him do what he wants, a Super Bowl Subway commercial with Jared. He has a partnership with Cricket Wireless, which sponsored the Arena Theatre concert. He has a relationship with legendary local label Rap-A-Lot, which has provided his two managers. One, the widely respected "International" Red, says Jones is basically "starting from scratch" — but this time with an understanding of how the game works.

"He has a clear path," Red says. "Once he's on the plane, it's clockwork. Mike will shake every hand and kiss every baby."

Jones has a new album coming out in December called Expect the Unexpected — a phrase he now repeats over and over again.

He goes into a hysterical giggle, snorting and choking.

"People just don't know what to expect right now from Mike," he says. "Expect greatness. Expect the unexpected, my nigga. Goddamn expect the unexpected."

Pena walks in with a freshly lit blunt, which he hands to Jones, and a girl in tiny booty shorts and a laced tank top whom he takes upstairs.

Jones coughs and chokes on the smoke. Whatever he says next is slurred and unintelligible. He started smoking about a year ago to fight the stress.

"It's just my fan appeal lost a little bit," he says. "The buzz, the momentum, lost a little bit. I was on Unsolved Mysteries. They don't know what happened to Mike Jones. He ain't dead."

Jones says he's been locked in a glass coffin. He leans forward and knocks rapidly on the table.

"I'm in that glass six feet under tryin' to get y'all attention. Y'all walkin' right over me. I'm these dominoes right here."

Knock — knock — knock.

"Feel me? Clear. You and them are walking over me. So I'm in there, ain't got nothing but time, to work."

Jones stomps his foot on the floor.

"And I seen all y'all faces as y'all spit on me, and walked past me, and laughed, and said fuck me. Somehow I got outta that mothafuckin' coffin, though."

At George Bush Intercontinental Airport, the gate for US Airways flight 3326 is about to close.

Jones is scheduled for a brief set at a car show in Ocean City, Maryland. It's his only stop in more than a week. Pre-boarding, Zone 4, then all rows are called, and finally stand-by. The door shuts in less than a minute.

Jones jogs down the hall, rolling his carry-on. Pena and his road manager, his only traveling companions these days, trail behind him.

"Life on the run," Jones says, and gets on the plane.

About 20 minutes into the ride to the venue, as the driver describes the beachside hotel, Jones suddenly realizes where he is. He did this show last year. People went crazy.

"It's just so good to be out there with the fans," he says.

The vast warehouse is packed with tricked-out cars and screaming fans. Jones plays five songs instead of his allotted three, not once mentioning haters or doubters.Then he jumps down to the table before the stage and poses and signs for well over an hour.

As the background music changes from Houston rap to regular rap to Nickelback, a couple of stagehands become confused, and start to whisper.

"He says he's here until whenever," one of them says.


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