It’s been a long time since rap music made me want to get buck. The sound du jour is zombie marching band, where the drumline seems to be the only section with enough animation left to create music, all rumbling bass drums and menacing, macabre, horror movie synths (think early Hitchcock, not so much Nightmare On Elm).
Listeners of a certain age may not remember, but there was once a time when crunk was king. Building off the late-nineties momentum of pioneers like Master P, it was a time before “trap rap” proper, when, rather than leaning hazily through a toxic fog of Xanax and codeine, Southern rap instead encouraged listeners to grab two cups of brown liquor from the bar and stomp their way to the dance floor, elbows swinging with reckless abandon.
Underground Dallas rap trio The Outfit, TX remembers, though. Fuel City, the latest LP from the uproarious three-man band from Texas’ other big city, harkens back to the era of tall tees and Bape sneakers, updated for a generation that grew up on anime and Call Of Duty. The result is not unlike if Trap Muzik-era T.I. was sucked into a Pac Man machine late one night, then promptly ran into Lil Sam and Lil Bo (aka The Eastside Boyz) and started a cage match in a whatever passes for the hood in the world of Tron. In short, Fuel City just might be the rebirth of the crunk sound.
Dorian, JayHawk, and Mel share rap duties throughout the album, while Mel and Dorian previously handled the group’s early production. However the low-fi, yet futuristic production on all ten songs on Fuel City comes from outside the trio proper, directly resulting in the nearly unhinged party vibe. While their debut, Down By The Trinity, featured a slower, more somber vibe, over the course of their musical evolution with joints like “Bear Necessities,” they’ve come out of their shells and into their own as a rambunctious, party-starting pack of rabble rousers.
While Fuel City was sold to me as “not really a computer record,” requiring wheels and the sort of speakers that could only be furnished by the finest of old-school low-riders, unfortunately, all I had was my headphones. By the third track, “Goin’ Up,” I was about ready to tear the wings off the airliner ferrying me back to LA from Chicago in midair. The leading track, “Big Splash,” establishes exactly where this collection lives and where it’s headed — right back to the golden era of Lil Jon ad-libs, gold grills, and out-of-control behavior in any venue in which it’s played.
Nowhere is the video-gamey vibe more readily apparent than on “Phone Line,” one of the few solo tracks, which finds Mel careening carelessly over a Mega Man boss fight bass line splashed liberally with crash cymbals that evoked the not-quite mosh pits that regularly broke out in Atlanta clubs back in the Def Jam Vendetta days, when rap music was both party music and fight music at the same damn time.
As far as the raps go? Look, this is not ultra-lyrical, Nas-and-AZ-level rhyme construction. At the same time, neither is it so-called “mumble rap” (which, it could be argued, features a lot less mumbling than the name would imply). The rapping here is what it needs to be; it’s straightforward, it rhymes, and it gets the point across — the point being, in general, that The Outfit, TX does not want you to test their gangster, for your own good. There’s fighting, there’s drinking, there’s stunting; all the usual accoutrements of a YoungBloodz or Three Six Mafia song are here, with rhymes about on-par with some of the higher-tier 8Ball and MJG.
The Outfit isn’t reinventing the wheel with Fuel City. If anything, they’re cleaning out Southern rap’s attic, pulling out old fits and discovering — like every generation of rap innovators before them — that anything old can be made new again, with a little twist on the original design. It remains to be seen if crunk rap can kickstart a true renaissance, but even if it doesn’t, connoisseurs of the chaotic, early-aughts dominance of the music that coined the term “twerk” and pissed off East Coast rap heads for nearly a decade can always return to this gem when they feel like breaking out that tall tee and turning up like they used to. Stream Fuel City below, and watch those elbows.
Fuel City is out today on POW Recordings. Cassettes and more available here.