Houston Music

The 15 Best Houston Rap Tapes of 2015

If you look back at 2015 in Houston rap, things happened. The Earth shook on more than a few occasions, we technically battled Dallas for four days at the beginning of the year and that was special. We welcomed back albums from Scarface and Trae Tha Truth. That was neat. We crowned new regional kings, we saw people sell albums, sell out arenas, spread the gospel and ultimately get the hell out of Houston to share their talents. All of these things happened, and they were quite beautiful.

What I’ll remember about Houston rap in 2015 is how thick the scene was. Wherever you looked, someone was doing something and stretching their creativity. In capturing all of the ins and outs and movements, the New Houston Rap column was erected. Here, for the third consecutive year, we’re reminiscing about the albums that impacted the city the most. Well, the best albums of 2015, to be precise.

They came from super-gangsters, introspective sages who’ve left prior lives behind. They came from rappers born with muscles and ideologies geared towards rapping and nothing else. The hardest part? Narrowing it all down to 15 projects. Top to bottom, they may be faulty in some areas, but overall they were both enriching and the best representations of what the city was on this year. There’s no denying this.

Apologies to Bigg Fatts’ Snackin’ 4 Beats; Roosh Williams’ Unorthodox; Z-Ro’s Melting the Crown; Killa Kyleon’s 30 Days, 30 Deaths; Doeman’s $tereo Type$; any of Slim Thug’s three tapes (FYI, it goes 2 > 1 > 3 by slim margins); and Rizzoo Rizzoo’s Itz Hot Vol. 1, all of them among the best tapes this year that just missed the cut. These are the 15 best projects to come out of Houston in 2015.

15. PAUL WALL, Slab God
There was no way Paul Wall wasn’t going to try and do what he does best in 2015. Not in the slightest. The Houston mainstay made certain on Slab God to create something that would maximize on his own love for car aesthetics, playing loud, banging music for gliding down 45 to 610 and beyond. From the Shalamar gloss that drenches “Swangin’ In the Rain” to the down-bottom groove on “Top Dine,” Slab God didn’t give a damn about being a classic by typical rap standards. It wanted to be a Houston mainstay by appealing to what Houston does best. Seriously, try listening to “Crumblin’ the Satellite” and not fall in love with Devin the Dude’s chorus and the trio of verses.

14. T.H.E.M., Nonpareil
If you know T.H.E.M., you understand they’re easily the city’s largest non Screwed Up Click/Swishahouse/South Park Coalition collective. Some may wield dual roles like “producer/rapper,” but all of them have eaten together, drank together, celebrated the scene and even spoke of what made it stagnant. All of those ideas were thrown into Nonpareil, a group effort where T.H.E.M. blatantly told you they had no equal and set themselves out to prove it. On “Outside the Box,” Rob Jay argues not only about media representation but rappers themselves. The album is a creative mode of expression for all parties. All of them have been celebrated in one form or another. When Nonpareil came out, I compared the tape to Friday. Ten months later, all of it holds up.

13. ONEHUNNIDT, Field Sobriety
OneHunnidt, the man, spent the latter half of 2015 piecing together his Numbers Committee crew and fidgeting with thoughts for the future. OneHunnidt, the rapper, had already gone through those growing pains with February’s Field Sobriety. Outside voices from Lyric Michelle, Love Dominique, Bee Honey and Sequioyah stick out, but the main constant is OneHunnidt, finally assured as a rapper and confident voice. “Screw Culture,” 2014’s Best Houston Rap Song, still rides comfortably in the middle of the project, between more emotional centers such as “Closed Caption” and “Fruition.” OneHunnidt is a man of big ideas and modest execution, but he’s also a far more capable rapper than we give him credit for.

12. MILKY WAYV, The Best Mixtape You’ve Ever Heard
If there were an award for best-titled project, Bobby Earth’s The Milky Wayv would have run away with this in a heartbeat. But there’s not, so The Best Mixtape You’ve Ever Heard will have to settle for being one of the year’s best projects from a band of individuals who wanted to sing about love like a 21st-century Lonely Hearts’ Club. Influences from The Internet and N.E.R.D are evident throughout, but originality still seeps through every track. There are tribute records to other singers of their ilk, “Lianne La Havas” gets a few keys and lullabies sung by Brandon Willis, and tracks like “Verbs” were only a precursor to what Peyton delivered on her own breakout EP. The Milky Wayv wanted to stick to making fun records, and they ended up making a great tape.

11. ROB GULLATTE & SHOW LOUIS, The Sophisticated Savages
There’s a constant fight you have to have with Rob Gullatte. It’s not his health issues that constantly seem to derail one of Houston’s best all-around rappers. It’s the fact that he gets so frustrated with music that he’ll declare his retirement at a moment’s notice. If he is retired (nobody truly believes him), then he and Show Louis delivered one of the best representations of authentic street rap by a duo in Houston in quite some time. Show is resigned to the idea that he’ll die in Houston, evident by his words on “The Hunt” and his rather drowsy demeanor. Every time Show says something, Rob doubles back with a high-pitched rasp that makes him sound like a cartoon character with a heart four times bigger than his stature. Both of them used The Sophisticated Savages to revel in the dirt and grime that they’ve not only inhabited but in some ways caused. It’s beautifully ugly.

10. KYLE HUBBARD, Majestic Hotel
Like the return of Paul Bunyan from a hunt, Kyle Hubbard figured out what he needed most from Houston was a break from it. He moved to Arkansas for a little while, kept up with was going on and then ended up submitting an entire album while not even actually being here. “Here,” for Kyle Hubbard, was dead in the center of his own heart and mind, a more mature effort that utilizes his flow, clever assertions and creativity, and a bouncing ball of laughs. It led to the spaced-out trapeze that is “Not Without a Scar” with Chase Hamblin and the pensive but self-fulfilling “Going Back to Houston.” He couldn’t help himself by revisiting the emptier things he revealed on You’re Not That Special, mainly because it was time to let go of the past and move forward.

9. DANTE HIGGINS, Good Forever
Given what we know now, Dante Higgins celebrated some highs in 2015 as well as some lows. The highs? Aligning himself with C. Stone’s Breadwinners firm, watching Duke win their fifth national championship and releasing Good Forever. The bad? All the things Higgins had to go through in order to get there. Good Forever not only leads off with a massive intro, one of the album items Higgins has forever won with, but it also leads with Puff Daddy directing an unknown man about what his motivations as a musician should be. So Higgins turns into his own personal superhero, stomping, laughing, joking, swinging toothy metaphors and similes. His childhood home, “Southlawn Plaza,” gets a yawn-and-stretch Stevie Wonder sample rise from Donnie Houston. “Listening to Marvin” places the center of Higgins’ universe in his grandmother’s house, waiting while hearing the sizzle and pop of fried chicken on a skillet. Dante Higgins went through some shit to get to Good Forever. If the blues and soul samples won’t rope you in, Dante Higgins spitting some polygraph-proof autobiographical rhymes about life in Third Ward should.

8. MAXO KREAM, #Maxo187
Look at the cover of #Maxo187 and think for a second. Beyond that black-and-white photo and gold-grill gleam is a man who has eyes about as black as the ace of spades, and the assured mindset of the most callous trap lord imaginable. Maxo Kream absolutely loves playing to the worst of people’s imaginations. He preys on fear and instills confidence in the worst of your vices. Most of #Maxo187 is built on gory violence and gangland expressions that bleed cold and blue. “Thirteen” trolls around dusty synths and autobiographical tales of growing up in Alief, venturing down the wrong path. Wolf de Michls is #Maxo187’s signature behind-the-boards auteur, offering plenty of room on “Cell Boomin” for Maxo and Atlanta’ Father to spit drug tales while suctioned to the middle of an A$AP party. If Houston were pissed about A$AP Rocky’s interpretation of screw and in a larger part, Screw culture — then they’ve got Maxo waving the flag for appreciators of the wave. It’s a “I’ll do this far better than you” motif, if nothing else.

7. SAUCE TWINZ & SOSAMANN, Sauce Theft Auto: Splash Andreas
Any attempt to figure out the best Sauce Factory-related tape of 2015 may lead you to throw your hands up in exhaustion. So, we’ll slowly break it down as such. The best solo tape from the group came from Sauce Walka, who ran through a ton of industry beats to display wisdom, absurdity and more. The actual best thing to come out of the Factory was Sauce Walka’s “Wack to Wack” diss, a verbal dismissing of Drake so profound, hilarious and on point that critic Jeff Weiss dubbed it the best diss record since “Ether.” But the best overall tape? The free-wheeling, Migos-connecting, “On Top”-featuring, “The Kid That Did”-fetishizing, super-gangster-filled, ad-lib-heavy Sauce Theft Auto. No Sauce tape felt more like a bloated, big-budget Tarantino flick than this one. It was gaudy, self-aware and so in love with itself that even if you attempted to mimic the Twinz in jest, you still found yourself hype over it.

6. TRAE THA TRUTH, Tha Truth
Forget the past, forget the past six years and just focus on what Trae Tha Truth decided to deliver for Tha Truth. As grateful and humble as he normally is outside a recording booth, he showed little mercy and compassion on his first proper LP in years. Hanging around in Scarface’s old skin as a harbinger of potential destruction, Trae stuck to being one of the few rappers who exist without comparison, a gatling gun of emotions who could riff on haters and faceless enemies but then cradle all of his sins and acknowledge them. “Children of Men” painted this story to a T, and “Book of Life” is as sullen and poignant as it gets. Insulate it with club heaters such as “Tricken Every Car I Got” and “Yeah Hoe” and you get the mindset of Trae Tha Truth: beloved, pained and celebratory all in one.

5. BEATKING, Houston 3 AM
Beyond the Sauce Twinz, no single entity decided to cloud the atmosphere with more music than BeatKing. Between last year’s award-winning Gangster Stripper Music with Memphis legend Gangsta Boo and the end of this year, BeatKing put out no less than five full-length projects. Between Houston 3 AM and 3 Weeks, the pontiff of twerking and club dynamics had one hell of a year. Only one problem: you’ve got to sit with only one BeatKing tape from this year, and that’s it. Houston 3 AM with its rather impressive array of emotions, fun and unfiltered hedonism had to fight with the open honesty (really, “4 AM”) mixed in with radio singles and big-budget feel of 3 Weeks. In the end, 3 AM wins, only by the sheer fact that BeatKing’s outsized personality truly came to form on a long-player for good here before we got it in album form. It’s the only Houston rap tape that dare revisited “It Ain’t My Fault” and twist it into an amazing case of rap immoderation.

4. DELOREAN, Perfect Black
The short of Perfect Black, DeLorean’s right-in-the-middle-of-tour rap tape, is that it finds him knee-deep in his own confidence. “Pay Off,” the tape’s impassioned middle, discusses the same tropes that DeLorean — and, to an extent, his country cousin Big K.R.I.T. — have followed for most of their careers: the struggle. No two rappers have shared such similar paths of rapping about their eventual happiness with creating music their own way. The strength of DeLorean’s tour exploits depict Perfect Black as overcoming being uncomfortable. He cuts through the bullshit on “Time Heals Wounds” and bites down hard on chasing and achieving things with a star-turn verse on “Got Me Thru.” He’s repaired with those voices that made his hardscrabble chase for victory a bit softer in Jack Freeman, Bam Rogers and Bruce Bang. All three offer something far more sobering for Delo to deal with. However, it’s still all about not just himself, but also the next generation he’s leading. “Magna Cum Laude” fast-forwards to the future for DeLorean, where rap careers don’t matter and the only thing that takes major purpose is his daughter reaching achievements he may never have. It’s personal, it’s fulfilling. It’s DeLo’s idea of perfect.

3. PROPAIN, Against All Odds
For the first time in years, a Propain album didn’t clock the very top of a year-end rap list. Pro’s release schedule has given us an album to dissect every off year and this year gave us Against All Odds, a rather softer, mental battle of the sexes that wasn’t as prominently figured on Dangerous Minds or Ridin’ Slab. The end result left the same desired outcome, though: Propain gathering plenty of his own memories, actions, faults and successes and combining them through that unmistakable rasp and even more easily identifiable production. He chased the ‘90s with glee on “1995” with Z-Ro, understood the complications of not only being free in a relationship but also being in love with the double dose of “2:45” and “Complications,” and even ventured to the strip club with Kevin Gates on “Rodeo.” He also found his bite with Slim Thug on “All I Know” and “Respect It” with Sauce Walka. When in need of a balance, he sought it from G&B and Donnie Houston, acting as a proverbial group of wise men to help Propain get through the heaven and hell of relationships. Having a daughter and cherishing her will do that kind of stuff to you.

2. LE$, Steak X Shrimp Vol. 2
By my estimate, Le$ has indeed created a landmark rap tape. Steak X Shrimp Vol. 1 displayed him fine tuning the Cadillac, continuing to sweep through his own idea of G-Funk with the help of DJ Mr. Rogers and Happy Perez. Steak X Shrimp Vol. 2 literally plays out like a ‘90s coming-of-age popcorn flick. There’s the “stunt on everybody” record in “Caddy” with high-wire synths and plenty of heavy shit-talk. There’s “Beautiful Day,” which lets Le$ relive his childhood alongside E.S.G and that classic “Swang & Bang” sample. There are so many moments on Vol. 2 where Le$ becomes the rapper you want to emulate. It’s a classic, and somehow it still got beat by what may possibly be the second-best tape in a legend’s catalog. That tape?

1. SCARFACE, Deeply Rooted
Scarface came back. Scarface literally went through hell, sickness and his own demons to come out clean. Scarface did things so that you don’t have to. Scarface got to play God, he got to entertain a massive rap party with Nas and Rick Ross. He got to wade knee deep in the production of N.O. Joe to create his version of the blues. He discussed making bad decisions and being at the barrel of a cops gun and even let Jack Freeman do a little gospel on “The Hot Seat.” Scarface went back to what made him fucking Scarface. Scarface found his roots. Scarface found the best Houston rap tape of 2015.
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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