By KELEFA SANNEH
Published: April 18, 2004
LIKE lots of great musical stories, this one wouldn't be the same without drugs. In this case, the drug is prescription-strength cough syrup, the kind that contains codeine, and it has long been the intoxicant of choice in Houston's hip-hop community. They call it syrup, or "lean," although someone forgot to tell the sponsors of a local weight-loss program called Get Lean Houston.
Sipping syrup makes you woozy (or so they say), and the city developed a woozy hip-hop subgenre to match its favorite narcotic: in the 1990's, a local mogul named DJ Screw pioneered the "screwed-up" remix, making songs more syrup-friendly by slowing them down. An overdose killed DJ Screw in 2000, but his unlikely hip-hop revolution lives on. Universal Records releases official "chopped and screwed" versions of all its Southern hip-hop CD's, decelerated by DJ Screw's heir apparent, Michael Watts. And in Houston, unlicensed screwed-up mixtapes are still wildly popular.
Now it looks as if this psychedelic scene has produced a mainstream hip-hop star: a charming (and, of course, lackadaisical) rapper named Lil' Flip, a 23-year-old veteran who got his start rhyming on DJ Screw's tapes. Flip doesn't rhyme much about syrup anymore, but his sluggish delivery reflects his mentor's approach — he seems to see the world in slow motion. And last week his new double-CD, "U Gotta Feel Me" (Sucka Free/Columbia), made its debut at No. 4 on the Billboard album chart, below Janet Jackson's latest, but above the new albums by Aerosmith and Eric Clapton.
Critics sometimes complain that hip-hop is stuck in a sex-and-crime-and-violence rut, which is a bit like complaining that R & B is stuck in a love rut. Lil' Flip's career is yet more proof that this complaint is beside the point: you can be a great rapper even if you don't have anything in particular to say. His rambling rhymes are often merely excuses to show off his intonation and his flow, and he loves to defuse a violent threat by adding a throwaway joke: "One time for all my gangstas, two bullets for them wankstas/ I made a lot of y'all careers, and y'all ain't tell me, `Thank ya.' " Like the first-generation rappers of the late 1970's, whose job was merely to keep talking while the D.J. played records, Lil' Flip often sounds as if he could go for hours — and one presumes he'll never be interrupted by a coughing fit.
In 2000, Lil' Flip released his first solo album, "The Leprechaun," a heavy-lidded opus disguised as a box of Lucky Charms, complete with the star in a shiny green suit and matching hat. The CD began with Lil' Flip being crowned "Freestyle King," an award of his own invention (his slurry acceptance speech begins, "I'm Lil' Flip, I deserve it, y'all know me . . ."), and it included the hit "I Can Do Dat," which spawned one of his many appealing (and slightly idiotic) catchphrases. And yes, the song sounded even better slowed down.
His Columbia Records debut, "Undaground Legend," was released in 2002, and it eventually sold more than a million copies, thanks in part to "The Way We Ball," a brilliant single that sounded like the theme song to a pharmaceutically enhanced children's show. A chorus of kids sang along to the impish beat while Lil' Flip delivered a series of glassy-eyed, free-associative boasts: "I'm still sipping lean, I'm still watching `Scream'/ I love wearing platinum, but my favorite color's green," he rhymed — maybe he wasn't making it up as he went along, but it certainly sounded as if he was.
It's been clear for years that Lil' Flip is capable of creating a classic hip-hop album, and it's clear now that "U Gotta Feel Me" isn't it. In fact, it's not really an album at all — it's a mixtape. That's why he's holding an old-fashioned ghetto blaster on the cover, that's why each disc is about 45 minutes long (the album would fit snugly on a 90-minute cassette) and that's why most of the best songs are tucked away in the middle, instead of stacked up near the beginning.
But it's a great mixtape, stuffed with gimmicks and surprises that pull you back in just when your attention starts to wane. There are weird, memorable guest verses from David Banner, Cam'ron, Grafh, Killer Mike and others. "Game Over (Flip)" has a Pac Man-inspired beat and a one-word party chant: "Flip! Flip! Flip! Flip!" On "Ain't No Party," Flip picks up the tempo, bragging about having a watch so bright "You can't tell the time/ But you can tell I grind." And the second disc includes a couple of screwed tracks, including a bewildering remix of "Dem Boyz" (which appears on the first disc) where even the strings and conga drums seem to have been dipped in syrup.
To listen to Lil' Flip is to remember what hip-hop really needs these days: not a savior or a return to its roots or (please, no!) an attack of high-mindedness. No, what hip-hop really needs is a Harry Smith: someone to travel all over the country (especially the Southern states), collecting the underground albums and unlicensed vinyl singles and gray-market mixtapes that might otherwise disappear forever. Listeners looking to catch up on Lil' Flip's career should seek out "Houston We Have a Problem" (www.djsmallz.com), a greatest-hits mixtape, and "Lil' Flip Presents Clover G's" (Holla), on which Flip rhymes over beats from songs by Monica, Chingy, Jay-Z and others.
There's more where that came from, of course, but even Flip himself probably doesn't own all the mixtapes he has appeared on. "U Gotta Feel Me" is impressive, then, but it's not definitive — it's just another appealing mixtape in a career full of them. This one also happens to be a Top 10 CD, and DJ Screw would no doubt be pleased to see that his slow and unsteady style lives on. But let's hope that Lil' Flip doesn't spend too much time gloating about the success of his latest mixtape — let's hope he's already working on the next one.
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This post has been edited by Kooperman: 18 April 2004 - 06:43 AM