After years of living in the shadows of west and east coast hip hop, Houston is finally making a push for dominance. Not since the days of UGK and Geto Boys has the southern staple seen this much success and acclaim-especially coming from all different places and aesthetics.
Travis Scott introduced the mainstream to a psychedelic thrill ride of soundscapes on Astroworld; an album that rightfully earned its place amongst the best bodies of work in 2018 (also helped in earning Scott his first ever solo Grammy nomination). Scott dutifully juggled ambitious production with kaleidoscopic twists and turns-effectively mirroring the long gone Houston amusement park through a variety of different sonics (though the city does have support to rebuild it).
In a different light, the multi-talented Solange provided an illusory side to Houston, allowing the production to speak for itself. Her visionary storytelling on When I Get Home (2019) gave listeners an understanding of the city’s culture, specifically within the hip hop landscape. Her appreciation of the chopped and screwed era (courtesy of the late DJ Screw) is heartfelt and episodic. She furnishes a passageway for listeners-cordially inviting them into Houston’s elegance and charm. The songs acted as snapshots of a lifestyle; begging the listener to witness the beauty for themselves.
Like any other large city though, Houston comes with flaws. Maxo Kream grants listeners an opportunity to witness the familial aspects of Astro world. His recently released Brandon Banks album chronicles the street rhymer’s domestic hardships-prompted by his father’s imprisonment. Kream deftly pinpoints his family struggles, rarely condoning his father’s erratic behavior (his father beat his mother at one point during his childhood).
Through passages about materialism, Kream identifies the good in every family member he’s encountered, including both his mother and his troubled father (the latter of which the project is named after). At times, Kream struggles with his current lifestyle, and sometimes sees his father through him; hence the split face on the cover art. It’s clever, personal, and heartbreaking all at once. Out of the bunch, he possess the greatest lyrical versatility. His old school storytelling (listen to “Brenda;” an obvious Tupac ode) mirrors that of Biggie and the Geto Boys. The project’s greatest strength is Kream’s profound deep-dive into the nuances of unconditional love, and how it can be lost through the slightest of screw-ups. He accomplishes this sentiment without hiding his own blemishes-an admirable journey to say the least. There’s a relatable intimacy not too often found in the street rap sub-genre.
Speaking of hardcore street rap, Megan Thee Stallion quickly became hip hop’s breakout superstar with her debut album Fever. Her empowering tales about pimping and Houston tradition garnered critical and commercial acclaim-to the point where Megan was featured on a variety of feature and cover stories. Her confidence and infectious energy has been inspiring for female audiences all over the world-a void that’s finally starting to be filled within the genre (thanks to her and Cardi B). Megan’s newest album is filled with references to Houston’s illustrious scene. It’s an appreciation that can also be dissected within the work of local contemporary acts-such as Scott (with “R.I.P. Screw”) or Solange (with “Things I Imagined”).
Despite their different styles, all of these artists have something in common-they understand Houston’s past and present. In fact, they welcome it with open arms; thus paving the way for a bright future. And boy, is the future bright. As long as they continue on this upward trajectory, the possibilities are endless, as well as the constant search for creativity. Long live Astroworld.
If there’s anything these past two years have shown us, it’s that Houston is alive and most definitely well. Their versatility has been under the trenches for years, and we’re finally seeing it hit the mainstream. Beyonce will always be the queen of the city; no doubt. Her longevity and musical impact is unmatched. Because of her, Houston is re-writing the history books with diversity in their music. For other areas, this concept appears foreign.
Places like New York and Atlanta are doing little to develop their traditional boombap and trap design. They’re comfortable with sticking to the script, even if it means sacrificing a compelling structure. I’m sure many rap fans are sick of listening to the same Migos song over and over again. The experience is becoming derivative and mind-numbing.
Meanwhile, Houston is paving their own path. Artists like Scott, Solange and Kream are pushing the envelope, and actually forcing fans to digest every story, sound, and technique available. They’re here to tell many tales in their own fashion, hoping to gain appreciation from fans and critics. And so far, they have.
The artists I’d like to shout out this week are Anti-Lilly and Phoniks-a rapper/producer duo from…wait for it…wait for it…Houston!! The pair recently dropped their new project, That’s the World. And let me tell you, it’s been awhile since I’ve heard a lyrical rap album this raw, and this gorgeous. I feel like I should be riding with the windows down while the sun is setting listening to it. Phoniks has a knack for finding the most serene percussion imaginable-almost as if he’s mixing a cinematic score with boombap drums. Combine that with Anti-Lilly’s nimble wordplay about the come-up, and you’ve got yourselves an underground album worth checking out.
Side note: I love how there’s been a renaissance of rapper/producer duos over the past year. We need them. The product usually packs much more intimacy and emotion. It’s one of the few trends I can get behind.