Tony Dark appreciates a few things in this world: a good drink, the right amount of fellowship and a finely tuned instrumental to make your head rock damn near off its pivot. For the better part of half a decade, if not longer, Dark has done yeoman's work around Houston, crafting at times doleful, moody creations straight out of the ’90s. It matched his aesthetic to a tee. If you ever meet Anthony “Tony Dark” Levine, the first thing you’ll see is his ginger beard stretching about half a foot away from his face. But then you’ll hear him talk, about his favorite producers and being level-eyed and being one of the various beacons of the party. What eats at Tony Dark isn’t a singular, insulated thing; it’s pensive and open to interpretation. Local support for him, particularly with dollar amounts, is finicky. Then again, a lot of support always seems to be finicky, regardless.
Where Tony Dark does find support is the crew of rappers he’s long associated himself with. After he and Dutch Richmond ran the gamut of material from Frank Castle aliases to drum-heavy moments of funk and bravado, Dark began working more within himself. Beautiful things came out of it, whether his work with Kxng David (the former C.I.T.Y Chronicles) or a heap of others. There’s a power to Tony Dark, and he knows it. He still wants people to recognize it all the same.
There is no Napoleon complex wrapped around The Tony Dark Experience, his new album, just a varied crew of rappers from Doeman to Danny Watts and Detroit’s Guilty Simpson. On the warped boom bap of “Famous,” Kxng David raps with the wispy pride of a man from New Orleans who has seen way too many murders and knows there’s a cache of street credentials attached to it. “I ain’t never got bodied on a verse,” Doeman raps on “Swerve,” as Tony Dark cracks back a dusty drum pattern and woozy keyboard licks. “My past life, I was a Bad Boy signed to Death Row.” The more The Tony Dark Experience leans between different lanes, the more you get that the only requirement for steering what amounts to an audio Big Box Chevy is that they can rap. And not sticking to A-B-B-A rhyme schemes or framework, I mean make you willfully squeal to your friends and complete strangers about how dope they are.
If “Swerve” is as lo-fi, woozy and freewheeling as The Tony Dark Experience can get, things pick up only moments later with “Revelations.” Brice Blanco hasn’t necessarily put out a full-length effort since he crashed The FADER last year, but he hasn’t had to. Every guest appearance he’s made in the interim has been a tongue-twisting cabal of lyricism. “I think I be, I think I see,” he affirms as Tony’s guitar steady movement allows Blanco to find divine vision when holistic remedies are being shunned. These are country rap tunes without the heavy-handed notion of a twangy sample. All of the stories are tailor-made for pass-around cyphers and late-night brew sessions, which says more about the engine that keeps it all in motion than any of the number of guests. The way “Revelations” spools out into a West Coast-like slab of rubber makes you yearn for it to be a B-side to Ahmad’s own coming of age tale in “Back In the Day.”
Dark’s influences, from Dilla to Alchemist, show throughout his experience. The bongos and isolated guitar plucks of “Crazy 101” push him further toward Madlib as Blanco shows up once more to deliver a nasally earworm of a verse. Tony managed to even pull the former Preemo, now going by his government name of Manuel Beltran, to jump into the fray on two separate occasions. Once the low hues of “Starry Night” click in, you’re expecting someone to climb aboard with a moment of love, of heartache and yearning for a Monroe Doctrine of policy regarding hearts and feelings. Given how George Young feels about his sports teams, maybe sneaking a lady for a night may take the edge off, especially if Aaron Neville is the soundtrack.
Last week, we remarked about how TrakkSounds was keeping the world moving to his own eclectic mix of influences. If The Other Side parlayed influences from old school Rap-A-Lot, No Limit and a host of other forms of gumbo into a tantalizing project then The Tony Dark Experience ventured even further out. The laid back, California dices and guitar work; the drums and programming that feels like a lost breakbeat session come back to life; occasional synths and embedded knock that would normally employ Wu-Tang and karate movie sound bites. All of that weaves into Tony Dark’s mind and head. He’s a student of what East Coast rap heads consider “The Golden Age” but he’s always looking beyond that. To him, Houston music has no real distinction beyond sounding dope and capable of holding a groove to. Tony never strays too far from the groove on The Tony Dark Experience, the needle just drags into another hazy view you’re enchanted by.
By comparison, Tony Dark's smoothness doesn’t quite compare to the coat of braggadocio that adorns Dominique Gold’s body. Well, you know him as Nique for short, and he won’t let you forget it. Last December, Nique addressed the early aspects of paranoia, mental health and even a minor case of PTSD on Dazed & Confused. He went through it, listening to Earth, Wind & Fire as a coping mechanism. Yet the more you listen to Nique, the more that Sunnyside rasp of his and his bounce-off-every-wall-around-you energy, you get it. You get why he raps while saluting MTV Cribs on “High Rise” or counteract any low moment with a high one. What else is he supposed to do, wallow? Finding his brother dead, getting locked up in a psych ward, none of those things should go through the mind of a man not even 25 yet. That’s Nique’s life, though.
He’s openly admitted to drug use to cope in one way, making music as another. HSATB starts off with no jokes or frilly movements. “Tell them boys who robbed me to come back, I’m strapped now,” Nique raps, and you wholeheartedly believe him. “Sunnyside niggas think it’s fucking snipers on the roof,” he drops on the tape’s best track, “Sunnyside Zoo.” Nique loves these sauntering packs of menace as instrumentals. He can breathe easier, stomp heavier and embrace whatever mentality he can that allows him to ignore what reality brings. For a short, quick strike, HSATB is a playlist in Nique’s eyes. There’s goofy, West Coast squelch right out of Oakland with “Hold Something” and the Ninja Gaiden punch of “Yes! Yes! Yes!” that offer two contrasting opportunities. But Nique demolishes both of them with joyful glee. Most of this may be powered by weed smoke, Xanax and anything to bring about a high. It’s a far cry from the days at Howard when he got kicked out of housing and had to fend for himself.
Nique doesn’t want to be young and reckless, yet he is. Tony Dark isn’t necessarily reckless, but makes music strictly for young days and nights in the city. They both represent the DIY side of Houston rap, pulling in notoriety by their own damn means.
SONGS OF THE WEEK
DE’WAYNE JACKSON, “Truth Is”
Now fully immersed in Hollywood after leaving Houston, De’Wayne Jackson is canvassing all of his emotions for a lover no longer within arm’s reach. We’re so far removed from him rapping with a physical tic that “Truth Is” feels just like California, open and unrestricted to the mind. “I don’t mind the chase, I just need you here,” he raps while stuck on a woman that he’s loved far too long to just let go.
DONNIE HOUSTON feat. SLIM THUG, PROPAIN & MARQUS CLAE, “H.E.R”
Fun fact: This is the first official single from Donnie Houston after years of stewarding a host of Houston acts as Soul Brother No. 1. Secondary fun fact: Marqus Clae is all of 17 years of age, rapping alongside a guy who at 17 was dominating 97.9 The Box and the literal interpretation of Rap’s Sword of Damocles. Guess what? “H.E.R.” knocks as an ode to falling in love with the city and its hip-hop scene. All common sense.
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JOHN IBE, “Dance and Tango”
Here’s how funny Houston is. John Ibe, who is in a partnership with OG Maco, released a solid tape in Obstructed Environments a few months ago; guess who delivered it attention? Not as many people as you would have expected. And it was dope! “Dance and Tango” mixes modernized trap with Ibe’s typical highwire energy to create an atypical party record.
KAYJAY, “180 On the Dash”
This is a premiere in one way and a moment of showing out in another. You see, KayJay released Seize the Moment earlier this year, an album of positivity after he spent so much time behind TDC that he could have been a tour guide there. This is the first glimpse at the “180 On the Dash” video, the best record from Seize the Moment, and KayJay morphs into a minor version of Johnny Cash here. There’s no looking back for him as looking back at old images and memories behind a cell are his clear motivation to rap. “Mentally I elevate, got no time to hesitate” may be the eight simplest bars you hear all year. But they’re real as hell.