Out of the Box

July 22, 2009 was the second annual Trae Day, a day devoted to honoring Trae tha Truth, one of Houston's own rappers, known as much for his philanthropic efforts as for the menace in his lyrics.

It was started the year before by then Mayor Bill White and the City of Houston — Trae became the first rapper in the city's history to earn his own day. A full-on family festival was organized by Trae's camp to crown the occasion, more than 10,000 people showed up to pat him on the back. It was a complete, unexpected success.

2009's Trae Day was to follow suit. And it mostly did. Mostly.

The second Trae Day was held in a TSU parking lot, this time with the attendance reaching up past 15,000. There were free pony rides, school supplies, moonwalks, HIV testing, immunizations and more. Trae financed a bulk of the event. Acclaimed rappers Rick Ross and Shawty Lo showed up to lend their support. So did Bun B, Slim Thug and a whole host of others.

The one flicker of disruption that occurred — a few kids tugging at a backpack that had been tossed into the crowd from the stage during one of the performances — was quickly snuffed out by Trae himself. For five and a half hours, there was no anarchy anywhere. And then it was everywhere.

At approximately 8 p.m., the fire marshal called a premature end to the celebration because of overcrowding. A snarl of traffic congested the surrounding streets. A sizable crowd, thick with children and teenagers, stood waiting in the parking lot for the traffic to die down. That's when Albert Walker Mondane and an unspecified number of others opened fire on them. Everyone scattered. Eight people were shot. The victims ranged in age from 14 to 21 years old.

Trae was both heartbroken and irate.

"I really hurt the most when I found out what happened," says Trae. "To see them kids' faces before, to know what it meant for them and to know what that meant for the city to have that day, for that to get overshadowed...I knew that's what was gonna be put out. I was pissed, but hurt more."

Trae spent the evening and following days conducting a hailstorm of interviews regarding the unfortunate ending to what was an otherwise fortunate day of communal merriment and pride.

He inevitably made his way in front of the DJs at the Madd Hatta Morning Show, the weekday morning team on KBXX (a.k.a. The Box), 97.9 FM, a Radio One-owned company operating as the only hip-hop and R&B station in Houston. The interview quickly grew cantankerous when on-air personality Nnete Inyangumia implied that Trae was at fault for the shootings, contending that acts of violence were inherent in his music.

Now, this isn't exactly an ­altogether off-the-mark observation.

Trae's music is significant for any number of reasons, but mainly this: It makes accessible not only the worst parts of the guts of a major American city, but also the psyche of a man intelligent enough to thrive there. To listen to it is to live on the 8900 block of Braeswood, except you don't have to worry about getting your shit took.

There is no better long-form example of this than Restless, his third official LP. There is an ambient feeling of depression throughout the album (though it's not driven by it). Even the songs that aren't explicitly about something awful happening to someone Trae loves — the Jim Jones-aided "Coming Around The Corner," "Pop Trunk Wave" and "Cadillac" — are tinged with just enough desolation that they seem to serve only as stopgaps between bouts of depression and suffering.

And if this were the only thing you knew about the album, or Trae for that matter, you'd be forgiven for assuming it would be good for nothing more than serving as the soundtrack to blowing your brains out. But Trae presents that despondency in an artful and willfully expressive manner.

Where many Houston MCs get lost in either the trappings of the city's caricatured regional culture or hard-life talk, Trae can talk about both worlds. He possesses the authority to talk about street life that Paul Wall doesn't have, as well as the unreserved cockiness to talk about fancy cars and jewelry, things street-talk legend Scarface has always avoided.

Trae is a hardened man, with the vast potential to be bulldozing when he chooses. That seems inarguable. He was caught in a minor controversy when he punched rapper Mike Jones in the nose at the Ozone Awards in 2007, a situation he later publicly apologized for. And violence, or any other aspect of inner-city life for that matter, is a natural subject of his music. But it's not a natural extension of it.

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Shea Serrano