Chamillionaire is the rapper you can take home to mom and dad. His albums contain very little swearing, and, in fact, he won't even curse when he's quoting other rappers. When describing the music he liked as a child, for example, he recalls Snoop Dogg's famous "Bitches "Ain't Shit" line as: "B's ain't nothing but hos and tricks."
Virtually unheard of for rappers, he called three minutes before our scheduled interview, and speaks with insight and humility on subjects ranging from syrup use ("I think about the people we lose daily") to his problems with Houston rap and where he stands with former collaborator Paul Wall. More on those subjects later.
Hearing him discourse without a beat just makes one all the more impatient for his third album, Venom. It was recently pushed back (yet again) to March 16, and his publicist says it will surely be delayed even longer, as Universal dillies and dallies the way majors are prone to do in these dark industry days. In the meantime, fans will have to settle for a new mixtape, Major Pain, out February 2.
Venom has already spawned an excellent, if slightly underperforming, single called "Good Morning." Featuring a sample of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'," it's a good-natured bit of adult-contemporary rap that shows his haters some love. "If I was in your shoes / I'd probably hate on me too," he raps.
Truth be told, it's difficult to find any Chamillionaire haters out there. Pop music fans worldwide fell for his UGK-referencing 2006 smash "Ridin'," and its album The Sound of Revenge went on to be one of the best-selling Houston hip-hop discs of all time. His 2007 follow-up Ultimate Victory was overly topical — take its rhyme about the feud between Rosie O'Donnell and Donald Trump — and lacked a huge single, but nonetheless established him as a largely gimmickless MC with genuine chops and clever turns of phrase to go with his big hooks.
Meanwhile, he surprised many by cracking Forbes's list of the top-earning rap stars of 2008, tying The Game and OutKast at No. 14 with an estimated $10 million. He says he benefits from a savvy deal, signed with Universal before Revenge, heavy on back-end royalties and digital rights.
"The ones who make money for the label, they have more power," he says. "I had a little bit of power because I had proof that I had sold already."
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He's referring in part to his 2002 collaboration with Paul Wall, the independently released album Get Ya Mind Correct, which sold some 150,000 copies. He was able to find success by hustling hard, in the original sense of the word — that is, working his ass off. Growing up with Wall in Woodland Trails, the pair bonded over basketball and video games, but spent most of their time listening to and crafting hip-hop.
"I always used to just be rapping about money," he remembers. "Before I was Chamillionaire, I always had names like 'Payroll.' I used to make rhymes like, 'I got rims bigger than your house.'"
He and Wall met impresario Michael "5,000" Watts while handing out flyers for hip-hop shows, and they convinced him to let them do an intro for his KBXX radio show. Watts later put the track on popular mixtape Choppin Em Up Part 2.
"Everybody liked it," Cham remembers. "People started asking [Watts], 'Wait a minute. Who are these guys, Chamillionaire and Paul Wall?'"
Though Chamillionaire had pledged not to sign with a major — he assumed they would never agree to his terms — he eventually received an offer that made him comfortable.
He's recently shown his versatility through collaborations with acts like Weezer; on the remixed version of their song "Can't Stop Partying," Cham appears in the stead of Lil Wayne, who recorded the original. (We, for one, believe Cham bested Weezy.) With USO tour dates and a sound that no longer sounds particularly H-Town, he's transcended the "Houston artist" tag more effectively than most in this insular town.
"There's nothing else I can tell you about candy paint that you don't already know, nothing about a gold grill that you don't already know," he says. "So I can choose to keep telling you about that until you get bored with it, or I can think of something new and innovative and fresh.
"The best thing I could do for my city is to do stuff that's not just about my city," he adds.
His creative differences with Paul Wall rest largely on this issue. They fell out years ago, though they recently collaborated on a new song and will be touring together in March, including a headlining show at SXSW with Trae and other Texas artists.
Nevertheless, Cham hasn't even heard the entirety of Wall's latest disc, Fast Life, because he's so critical of Wall's tunes.
"[That's] why I won't even listen to it all the way, because I'm thinking of things I wish he would do," Cham says. "I think Paul makes a lot of songs people in the hood really like. But...he sometimes makes music that's directed at one audience, and I feel that he could be greater than that."
Responds Wall: "He's right. I think Chamillionaire has a more global kind of sound, whereas my style is definitely directed toward Texas. He always felt he can be bigger than that, an artist on Jay-Z's caliber, where it's not just for the city or the state. And I always felt like I could be like Juvenile, where there's no question that he's from Magnolia [Projects], New Orleans.
"[Cham and I] just have different views, and I think we're both right."
But Chamillionaire himself seems to wonder if he was meant to be a global icon.
"People say I'm pretty normal, which is not really a star quality," he says. "You're supposed to be wild, you're supposed to get tattoos everywhere, but I don't do none of that."
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At the very least, it seems possible that Chamillionaire's time has come and gone, that he doesn't have any more top-selling ringtones or eight-figure years ahead of him. But yet he seems comfortable with himself and his image.
"[W]hen you see me, this is really what you get. When I wake up and look at myself in the mirror, I don't feel like I'm pretending to be someone else. That's the best thing about this for me — keeping yourself, not losing yourself in the gossip."
A refreshing attitude? Sure, even if it does sound like something mom and dad might tell you.
Ben Westhoff's book on Southern rap, Dirty South, will be published next spring through Chicago Review Press.