While Mike Jones was taking his sweet time backstage Saturday night, the HOU's Next rappers were busy revving up the House of Blues crowd with a catalog of fire songs dashed with local love.
The HOU's Next crew represents the fledgling future of the local rap scene. These artists, not beholden to established labels or other music-industry snares, have the freedom to stretch the boundaries of what rap can be. Their tracks, forged in a world flush with anomie, are a far cry from the easy hedonism that defined the ascendancy of artists like headliner Mike Jones; they're sharp, they're critical, and they're self-aware in a way that an era of political and social unrest demands. Simply put, HOU's Next is making the rap both the city and the world needs right now. They're drawing an audience and raising eyebrows in a way the old guard of Houston rap can no longer do.
Genesis Blu, the "head-fucking hen" of the Houston rap scene, approached her portion of the HOU's Next set with her signature lyricism, humility and positivity. Songs like "Have it All" fed the crowd a smart message that refused despair and embraced possibility; with the lines "you can never check my mic/ I'm not your stereotype/ No limits and no ceilings/ I'm about that life," Genesis simultaneously confronted the barriers that entrap women in the world of hip hop without letting them hold her back. She kept on teaching with the fist-pumping anthem "Bluming Season" delivered a smooth, vintage flow woven into its story of personal growth.
Though the artist usually resists music that's overtly sexual, Genesis cut loose with some older tracks that embraced her sultrier side. The song "Run it Back," an old-school narrative-style rap of sexual awakening, oozed into the mike with steamy innuendo, and the song "No Cuddlin'" popped back at a lousy ex-lover with a whole lot of side-eye. Genesis Blu's willingness to venture into a territory that she regularly forecloses demonstrated just how safe and supportive the House of Blues show was.
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While the DJ got the crowd moving to Lil Keke's classic "Southside," T2 the Ghetto Hippie was waiting in the wings for his set. T2 fashions himself as the court jester of Houston rap. Dressed in a faded flannel shirt and pineapple pants (yes, pineapple pants), the self-proclaimed leader of the "Good Vibe Tribe" took to the stage with knowing glee, gripping the mike close as he laid into "Double Cups and Taco Trucks." Like any good jester, T2 used his moments of revelry to expose deeper truths; at one point, he proclaimed he "was going to do some cliche rapper shit," and hyped the crowd to make some noise for weed, drank, Houston, and other easy-to-pander-to items.
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By facing the these phony rap platitudes head on, however, T2 shows how he's wise to the cavern of emptiness underneath what audiences easily cheer for. It's that looming emptiness that the artist seeks to fill with his music. When T2 performed the deep and bassy "IDGAF," it was clear from his earnest performance that all his hustle, and his pleading overtures with the audience come together as one, are all done to stave off the desire "to put a piece to my head and make that bitch go bang."
The last HOU'S Next set, featuring Doeman, was a triumph of technical rap mastery. Doeman can freestyle like no other; he's quick and biting, popping into his bars faster than any writer can easily transcribe. His flow, in a word, is vicious, and it demands to be heard. The song "F.W.M.N.," the bitter, menacing diss track to all those who ever doubted the rapper, dropped like a bomb in the middle of House of Blues, unleashing an explosion of cathartic rage amidst its tinkling, horror-movie backbeat. While he might not brand it as such, Doeman's work is intellectual; for every bar that is an elaborate middle finger to the rapper's enemies, there's one that offers thoughtful critique. The line, "You worried about Instagram/I'm worried about the immigrants" showed that Doeman knows he's rapping in a world of injustice that requires a response. Unlike other rappers, Doeman is man enough to make that response.
But what, you might ask, about headliner Mike Jones? The rapper made audiences wait over an hour for his set, starting well past the time his set was supposed to be finished. There's a metaphor hiding in that delay: the clock is striking midnight on the rap of the early aughts. In a world where nuclear attacks can be threatened with casual abandon, where white supremacists can walk the streets without hoods and where protesters can be murdered with impunity, songs like "Still Tippin" just don't resonate. In fact, that seem shamefully trivial in the face of so much turmoil. Houston's up-and-coming rappers have found a way to adapt party aesthetics to the changing world; maybe it's about time they got to take center stage.