There has not been, nor will there be, a rap album from Houston this year as entangled in storylines and ramifications as Trae's Can't Ban Tha Truth. Not even if he somehow manages to release The Truth, the LP that was supposed to usher him into the national spotlight but was pushed aside as The Ban took hold of all of his attention.
CBTT is considerably more than just an album taking shots at The Box - it is that, though. The Ban has effectively altered the trajectory of not only Trae's career, but also his entire outlook, which will have, and is already having, resounding effects on his music. This album represents that shift with a strange, unreserved enthusiasm. It is a marker in Houston hip-hop history.
Trae has always been intuitive and shrewd; you don't get to the position he is in now - effectively able to provide for handfuls of people despite a limited education and a snowstorm of hardship hurdles - without being that. And after being able to see the resulting effects of The Ban (i.e. how loyalty does not translate well to rap, especially in a market as insular as the South), those characteristics have become hyper-magnified. That's what drives Can't Ban Tha Truth.
Hit the jump for the notes from the album.
• There is no stratagem on CBTT, nor any clever deception cloaking Trae's intentions. There is no wartime suppression fire. He simply stood up and walked head-first into the fight. This is an album with a purpose, which means very little of it is empty space.
Remember how driven Chamillionaire was to destroy Mike Jones on Mixtape Messiah? Cham always did his best work when had an agenda. Trae does too, and he possesses that same sort of intensity here. There were concerns that there was the potential for this to become little more than a tape full of whining and posturing, but Trae's crushing sincerity nullifies that.
• The entire tape has very clear cinematic feeling. There are no distractions. Trae's focus does not wane. The production on nearly every song is airtight; it's all horror-movie dramatics and ambient sadness and disappointment.
• Only two parts on the entire album feel negligible: The Castlevanian "Hood Nights," which Gudda Gudda fans will no doubt enjoy, and a cameo from Yung Turk (remember him?) talking about the difference between bitch niggas and real niggas. That's a hit-to-miss ration of 19/21. That's 90 percent, yo.
• With regards to the Yung Turk mention in that last bullet, there are four non-rapping cameos made: Turk, Lil Duval (who is actually a little funny), Pimp C and Pimp C's mother. The Pimp C clip is a recording of him that was taken after he got out of prison alleging that Terri Thomas from The Box threatened to not play his albums if he didn't open up at one of The Box's shows, as well as to call his parole officer and say that Pimp was threatening her, which would have landed him back in prison. The vitriol in his voice is near palpable.
• Pimp C's mom makes an appearance to talk about how bad everyone that has abandoned Trae should feel. Her monologue is delivered over some very somber organ and guitar rifts. It absolutely works. You can't listen to it without feeling like an asshole.
• There are four songs on CBTT that people will be buzzing about after it gets released: "Cop A Drop," "General," "They Won't Play This On The Radio" and "Bad Don't Seem So Wrong." Read on for little about each:
• "Cop A Drop": Read about it here.
• "General": Bryan Angel from Day 26 makes two appearances on the album, though his work on the chorus here is the one worth talking about. He owns it. And Trae steps out of his solemn shoes and goes yo-yo on a couple of speedy verses he likes to show off on every now and again. It's almost like some early ABN stuff.
• "They Won't Play This on the Radio" is a particularly emotive track that features a hook made from parts of Wyclef's "If I Were President." It's simply Wyclef playing and Trae rapping, and on par with The Incredible Truth's "Could Use Somebody" in its earnestness, though it does not surpass it.
The two best lines from the song: "I'm in the community daily just to fill they pain, and show 'em when they under pressure how to fight the rain/ And if I'm guilty for that, then fuck it, I deserve it. Tell 'em go on shoot the sentence, tell 'em I deserve it." And: "People asking, 'Where the support from other Houston rappers?' I tell 'em, 'Nowhere, and truthfully it ain't a factor.' It's to the point when I'm around they act like they don't see me." Yipes.
• "Bad Don't Seem So Wrong" features a hook taken from a song called "Private Affair" by an obscure 1970s rock band named Garfield. Lupe Fiasco delivers a monster verse. The whole thing is an incredibly creepy song, crystallized when it gets to Trae's part, where a circling guitar accompanies each of his verses, building and building and building. You know that part at the end of 28 Days Later where that guy snaps and starts killing all of those soldiers who were going to rape those two girls? That's exactly what Trae's verses feel like.
• Those four songs listed are the obvious picks for standouts, but "Tear" is the most interesting, mainly for one reason: Trae has shown a noteworthy ability over the last 16 or 17 months to turn some absolutely heart-rending lines, and "Tear" is filled with them. They're just absolutely bruising to hear. Four examples:
• "I try patience, but it's hard to use around this motherfucker. Somebody help me before I lose it 'round this motherfucker."
• "I'll burn this bitch up before I let it hurt me any longer/ Shit got me rough as hell, I doubt it makes me any stronger." Christ, man. Even Eminem thinks this is dark.
• "I close my eyes and end up headed where they say is danger/ I'd rather be there 'cause here is nothing but familiar strangers." This one, in particular, is deceivingly clever. Just think on it for a few minutes. The philosophical implications are stammering.
• "I kill myself to live for what I love, I'm watching it sink in sand."
• Those are all absolutely brutal lines, which leads to this: Z-Ro used to be the unquestioned best at describing the alienation and hurt that he felt. There was just no one better. But not anymore. Trae has officially usurped him. He has, for practical purposes, managed to humanize being a tough shit, to the point now where it's basically endearing.
You know who he is? He's Avon Barksdale from The Wire. Ideologically, they're almost the same person. If you don't know who Avon Barksdale is, do this: First, punch yourself in the face. Also, go buy all five seasons of The Wire on DVD.
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Cant' Ban Tha Truth is not better than Restless. Let's be clear about that. But, in totality, with regards to the possible effects and outcomes, it's the most important thing he's made since then. As a result, two discussion points have been spawned, one of which is firm, the other of which is absolutely speculative:
So long as the station's current ownership/management is in place, Trae will likely never ever get back into the good graces of The Box. It just can't happen. Ever. And really, it seems like he doesn't even want it to anymore. But can he sustain that way? Can he continue to grow and expand his popularity beyond just regional and underground acclaim? Or is he now destined to become this generation's K-Rino, a rapper with all of the talent and heart and determination to break big but never afforded a legit opportunity? The new media will no doubt make that unlikely, but it isn't entirely far-fetched anymore.
Secondly, can this whole situation somehow evolve into Trae etching himself onto Houston's Mt. Rushmore of Rap? At first glance, it seems premature to say out loud, and there are whole decades to consider, for certain, but think about it. The pieces are in place.
Imagine if Trae were somehow able to get out from underneath all of this. And then he logged three really great albums, all the while maintaining his dedication to the city. Who could you reasonably put in front of him?