Huntsville International Mixtape

(Slow Motion Soundz; 2009)

By Colin McGowan | 14 December 2009

I’m inclined to agree with ST’s claim that Huntsville should’ve been Alabama’s capital. This is due in part to the common knowledge that Montgomery is soft, but reason enough for me is that Hunts Vegas is currently home to an explosion of the trillest Southern rap since Atlanta’s early/mid-‘90s renaissance. While it’s not nearly as international as this tape’s title strains to proclaim, if your daily perusal of the web takes you to various hip-hop blogs, you’ve likely run across a track or two from someone repping Huntsville (and hopefully bumrushed Google blog search in an attempt to score more) hard. The thing is: G-Side and their cronies don’t know they’re definitively not major—every club they hit is packed, they’re frequently rolling their faces off, the fuck do they care.

It’s that attitude of self-definition that pervades Huntsville International, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t as infectious as Q-Tip’s smile (read: so very infectious). I found myself, in the midst of braving Lake Michigan’s malicious winds on an objectively shitty half-mile burrito run, bouncing along to the mercury-thick sonorousness of “What It’s All About.” Not to be all infomercial-y (G-Side: Transcendent Burrito Runs), but it’s easy to get absorbed into the universe this record creates. It’s as if ST, Clova, and the Block Beataz took the best elements from last year’s Starshipz and Rocketz, set them in a Petri dish, and allowed them to gestate into this expansive manifestation of goodness. Good like righteous; good like proficient; good like ribeye steak.

Still wonderfully present: ST’s straightforward expressiveness (“I was raised in apartments / I’mma die in a palace”), the way Clova’s fractured cadence plays off his partner’s thick drawl, and the Block Beataz, who have opened up their sound in a way that’s downright revelatory. This stuff sounds great on nice headphones and even better if you have something that can rattle the floorboards, the compositions inexpressibly alive with ornate touches buried deep in the mix. The Beataz have expanded their palette of whirring synths and trance music into soul samples, strings, and sultry pianos, now possessing not just Toomp’s penchant for trunk-thumping bangers, but Kanye’s adeptness at creating pastiches of beauty. Several beats attain a poignant ambivalence, vacillating between funereal and triumphant depending on various accents the Beataz employ. It’s downright cinematic.

The last third of this record is an absolute behemoth that showcases a synergy between the MCs that only crops up on this year’s two other truly great rap releases: Rae’s Cuban Linx sequel and Wayne’s No Ceilings. That comparison alone should imply in what sort of stratosphere G-Side reside, but I’ll emphasize: this is the best stretch of rapping and production I’ve heard all year. Tre 6 Gangsta’s verse on “Feel The” is so consonantly correct that an ugly Rihanna jokes slides off the beat’s chopped and screwed paranoia like shame off of Chris Brown’s back. (Too soon?) The flute sample that kicks in during Clova’s verse on “Rising Sun” prompted Betz to describe it as “Timbo drenched in syrup” (highest of high praise); on that same track some dude named Kristmas raps about having a legitimate hustle and showing the Feds his tax forms and unassumingly kills it. In case anyone would like to challenge the Block Beataz’ testicular fortitude, “Who’s Hood” invigorates the “World is Yours” sample, opting to let the piano breathe, at once familiar and exhilarating.

What might get lost in how thoroughly much of G-Side’s music brings the party like a thirty-rack to a houseful of high-schoolers is that their spiritual forebears were startlingly introspective, and, overtly compelled by their lineage, so are they. Andre 3000 is one of the hip-hop’s most lucid, observational voices, and while Cee-Lo’s made “I’ll Be Around,” his lyrical content was palpably saturated with paranoia throughout much of Soul Food (1996). Romantically, southerners are of humble origin, of earth and clay, and sometimes that muck seems to almost literally permeate their music. So, as every high has its somber point of sobriety, G-Side gives us “In The Rain,” drenched in strings and sighing female intonations, and “So Wonderful,” a stunning closer during which Clova spits about teaching himself tax codes and going back to school. Plus: the hook dredges up sensations within me not felt since Obama’s victory speech.

Excluding what might be pegged as token contemplative tracks (damn good ones), G-Side reminds me of the Clipse in that they might often be victims of misperception. While Pusha and Mal have been accused of coke rap nihilism, if one really parses their verses, they reveal a deep sense of conflict over the lives they’ve carved out for themselves (fictionalized or otherwise). ST and Clova are similar (though less talented) in that they often pepper brash verses with compelling sentiments. Clova spits on “What It’s All About” that he “Never ate from a silver spoon / Nor a silver platter / Mama tried, so that’s all that matter.” It’s hardly a meditative remark, but it’s interesting and specific; to put G-Side’s music in the same bin as unabashed chain-janglers like Gucci Mane feels disingenuous. All rappers obsessed with blunts and scoring blowjobs aren’t created equal.

So, unless those Belgian numbers are off, a majority of the world will not know the name of ST 2 Lettaz or the fact that he’s one of the best young rappers we have the pleasure of ignoring. Seriously, all that fleeting Cudi and Wale hype belongs to Bama’s native son. We east-coasters watched disgustedly from the sidelines as the South took over the mainstream throughout the decade, gradually recognizing the anthemic qualities of Jeezy’s work and conceding that, yeah, T.I.’s flow is undeniably liquid. (Let’s all admit there were some rough patches, though—I’m looking at you, D4L.) But as both Huntsville International and Pill’s The Refill are illuminating, perhaps the South is currently more fertile than we’re giving it credit for, and—even more consolation to those weaned on Wu and Biggie—its underground is beginning to draw more heavily on influences from the South’s first golden age.

In the same manner Black Milk and Flying Lotus have seized the torch from Dilla’s ghost and are sprinting with it in fascinating, new directions, the extensive Rocket City crew is offering their own interpretation of UGK, Three 6 Mafia, and OutKast. If the Paper Route Gangstaz tape was a jubilant collective exhibition, this is the focused statement, a heap of fervent joy, regret, introspection, and self-affirmation congealing into one remarkable, smooth-as-fuck document that has more to say on the subject of living than one listen might reveal. I’m just tryna stack a mil myself and quit cigarettes at the same time. I hear you ST.

:: myspace.com/gside74