At a time when Southern hip-hop is threatening to eclipse the New York and West Coast variants that spawned it, fans of down-home rap got an unlikely taste of mainstream approbation last month. “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp,” a tune from the movie Hustle & Flow written and produced by Memphis’ Three Six Mafia, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in a Motion Picture. As observed by Oscar host Jon Stewart and countless members of the hip-hop blogosphere, the rowdy group’s amped-up acceptance speech made for a deliciously bizarre moment of live TV: with any luck, their endearing George Clooney shout-out will become the new “You like me—you really like me!”
The most satisfying aspect of Three Six’s win is that the Oscar—the first awarded to a hip-hop group—went to one of rap’s more unconventional outfits. Three Six records are weird, unsettling works in which the horror of inner-city life is translated into sound; though it’s also an irresistible club record, “It’s Hard” speaks eloquently of the sorrow that underpins hip-hop’s high-life imperative.
That’s actually one of Southern hip-hop’s signature moves, especially heard over the last year in the stuff coming from Houston. In tracks by Mike Jones and Slim Thug, among others, the rappers’ big-balling runs over slowed beats inspired by the late DJ Screw give the music a dazed sense of unease, as if the MCs can’t escape the reality nipping at their heels.
“Rodeo,” the current single from veteran New Orleans rapper Juvenile, expresses that kind of emotional complexity well. An ode to the strip-joint denizens who’ve inspired Juve to his greatest commercial heights, the Cool-and-Dre-produced track is built on a sample from R. Kelly’s “Bump ’n’ Grind” remix (itself built on a sample from the Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh Child”) that establishes a contemplative vibe. As a fluttery electric-guitar lick unfolds beneath a looped female vocal, Juve takes the time to let strippers know, “You all beautiful women if you’re insecure.”
Later, he announces, “We’re not judging by size; that’s all statistics.” Though he also labels his favorite performer a “beautiful bitch,” there’s melancholy in the rapper’s delivery, as though he’s not entirely comfortable with the ramifications of the relationship he shares with her. “It’s not the right spot to let your daughters visit,” he says of the strip club, a point underscored in Marc Klasfeld’s “Rodeo” video, in which we see a dancer, besieged by overdue bills, caring for her baby as she does her makeup backstage.
Not much else on the unspectacular Reality Check (UTP/Atlantic) musters the thematic sophistication of “Rodeo.” “Get Ya Hustle On” has the makings of a post-Katrina call-to-arms: “Fuck Fox News, I don’t listen to ya’ll ass,” Juve sneers over a sinister bass bounce. “Couldn’t get a nigga off the roof when the storm pass.” Ultimately, though, the MC seems uncomfortable straying far from his comfort zone. “Everybody need a check from FEMA,” he observes, “so he can go and score him some coca-eena.”
Another Southern rapper who stands to benefit from Three Six Mafia’s Oscar win is Atlanta’s T.I., whose third album, King (Grand Hustle/Atlantic), debuted atop the Billboard album chart last week (only a few weeks after Reality Check held the same spot). Like the Three Six guys, T.I. harbors Hollywood dreams: The Friday before King hit stores, the rapper’s first big movie, ATL, opened in theaters. ATL’s box-office performance didn’t quite match the album’s—it placed third behind Ice Age: The Meltdown and Inside Man—but the movie does herald T.I.’s introduction to the hip-hop big leagues. Handsome and charismatic, he’d likely do fine following Will Smith’s path from rapper to movie star.
Of course, T.I. doesn’t rhyme about how parents just don’t understand. On King, as on his previous albums, the MC mostly alternates between recounting his experience in the drug trade and detailing the ways in which his abilities as a rapper trump yours. “I give it to you straight, nigga, I don’t need a metaphor,” he brags in “I’m Talkin’ to You,” an assertion much of his work supports. So T.I.’s heartthrob move is edgier than Smith’s; he expresses his sensitive side in Southern-rap style, allowing us the occasional glimpse into the collateral damage produced by leading life as a G.
“Live in the Sky,” a tribute to T.I.’s fallen peers whose chorus features Jamie Foxx reminding us that “what goes around comes back,” is the album’s most obvious soul-man maneuver. (There’s also “Hello,” a soft-focus R&B jam in which the MC promises to “smack your ass and kiss your G-strings.”) As introspective as he can be, though, T.I. sounds best in “What You Know,” the disc’s terrific lead single. Rapping over a woozy synth riff that can’t seem to balance itself, he describes a “loaded knapsack where I holdin’ all the work at,” projecting the confidence of a man who can’t afford to let his façade slip.
Façade-slipping is what the latest from Georgia-born Bubba Sparxxx is all about. The rapper’s first two albums, both produced in cooperation with Timbaland, presented Sparxxx as a sort of country-hop oddball. On Deliverance, his fascinating 2003 disc, the he rapped over beats assembled from chopped-up fiddle and mandolin riffs.
Timbaland only produced one cut on The Charm (Purple Ribbon/Virgin), Sparxxx’s first release on OutKast member (and ATL star) Big Boi’s new label. “Yeah, I’m a country boy, but I’m a player, too,” Sparxxx boasts in that track, and throughout the rest of The Charm, he seems determined to prove it. Instead of Timbo’s futuristic beats, we get hard, minimalist club tracks and the sort of strip-club rhymes with which Atlanta crunk kingpins Lil Jon and the Ying Yang Twins defined hip-hop in 2004 and 2005.
Though on first listen the album sounds like a tired retread—maybe Juvenile’s “beautiful bitch” is the same “bitch” Sparxxx is preparing to meet “up at the Claremont Lounge”?—The Charm ends up exerting a strange kind of power. “It’s time to reinvent again,” he admits in the spooky “Ain’t Life Grand,” tapping into the same Southern spirit that drives “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” Just as the Three Sixers document their love-hate relationship with the milieu that made them, Sparxxx charts his struggle to locate which version of himself is the most real. You can take the B-boy out of the barnyard, the album proves, but can you take the barnyard out of the B-boy?