With a new Three 6 Mafia album due at the end of the month, we'll soon find out if the commercial run for Memphis' most popular rap act --waning over the last couple of years -- is over. Whatever happens with that album, it seems clear that for Memphis' rap scene to reach the same level of national consciousness as competing regional scenes like Atlanta and St. Louis, it'll take a different kind of artist to lead the way. Whatever the successes of the Three 6 camp, there has always been a commercial and cultural ceiling on their achievement, apparent to the ear but captured by their moniker; they're a hip-hop equivalent to a subcultural, sensationalistic, preaching-to-the-choir metal band like Slayer. What the scene needs to become a major player is its own version of St. Louis' Nelly (major crossover star) or Atlanta's Outkast (major artistic force).
There's nothing on Life by young local MC Yo Gotti to suggest he can hit as big as Nelly did. And local rapper Kavious' debut Empty Shelves falls well short of Outkast's gangsta-oriented debut, much less their recent brilliance. But those are the models nevertheless, and both records expand the sound and style of local hip-hop in welcome ways.
Yo Gotti is a handsome, charismatic young MC with a solid flow and a clear commercial knack. He fits the swaggering young lion mold reminiscent of not only Nelly but New Orleans' Juvenile or New York's Fabolous. On Life, his debut for New York-based mid-major label TVT Records, he's selling a lie but selling it well. Gotti's predictable bling-bling aesthetic is splayed across the album cover, and he describes himself as a "young rap hustler." The second most unintentionally funny lyric on the record is "I admit when I was young I had a job." The winner is when he says, "I had a dream like Martin Luther King," and he's talking about getting his first single --called "After I Fuck Ya Bitch" -- played on the radio. The rap-game/dope-game metaphors are plentiful, and song titles like "Sell My Dope" (he has to do it himself because he "can't trust no bitch" and "if a nigga don't hustle then a nigga don't eat") and "Dirty South Soldiers" (featuring Atlanta's Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz) give a pretty clear indication of what this record's about.
This is an increasingly tired stance (see "Keepin' It Unreal," an excellent rumination on the persistence of the gangsta aesthetic by critic Ta-Nehisi Coates in the June 10th Village Voice), but Gotti gets more out of it than perhaps any other local rapper. The record sounds pretty good, from the sleazy, rock-oriented low-end grind of "Reppin' North Memphis" (which, like the title track, does a credible job of connecting Gotti's [under-]world-view to a recognizable reality) to the "Jungle Boogie"-sampling tag-teaming with smooth Houston MC Lil' Flip on "Get Down." (download alert: Flip's own hilarious "The Way We Ball" is a must-hear.) "9 to 5" and "Pop Kone" both either sample the Beastie Boys' Licensed To Ill or sample songs sampled on that album and to good effect, the former relating the choice between participating in the legal economy (low pay, low risk, when there's a job to be had) to the illegal economy (high pay, high risk).
Kavious' Empty Shelves also broadcasts its artistic intentions, its modest earth-tones album cover portending something different. The album appears on Atlanta-based Nuclear Records. It was mixed at Outkast's Stankonia studio, and the first single, "In the Yo," boasts a cameo from Outkast associate Killer Mike. (Mike gets the best of Kavious on that cut, but there's no shame in that, considering that the Atlanta rapper's 2003 debut, Monster, may well be the best rap record of the year).
Like rappers from Outkast's Dungeon Family clique or Kentucky's Nappy Roots, Kavious isn't shy about letting the "country" side of his Southernness come out in his delivery, and he spits fast like Outkast's Andre 3000. Also, like those high-minded colleagues, he mostly eschews the reliance on money-drugs-guns for subject matter. On "If You Need Me" and "Mac Ned the Crack Head," Kavious shows a knack for telling other people's stories, always a nice trait. And this topical variety is matched by the music -- bluesy on "Mac Ned the Crack Head," Latin on " If You Need Me," and jazz-funk on the standout "Hard Living," where he confronts facts of life too often submerged in mainstream hip-hop: "23 long years/Understand it was crucial/I want to get ahead of the game/But I'm afraid of my future," he admits, alluding to working hard, crappy jobs, which is a condition that a lot more of his listeners can relate to than drug-selling.
Though early-on Kavious announces that he refuses to be another one of "these phony renditions of Pac and Biggie," he mostly leads by example. The exception comes at the end, with the concluding "Dry Tears," where he raps, "Hypnotizing music that these folks be putting out/Money, dope, cars, and hoes/That's all these niggas talk about/It's a subliminal message that you send to the kids/Now they wanna do the same thing that you did/Instead of trying to lead them down the path of righteousness/Y'all stupid asses rather teach them how to make it to Rikers."
Despite the way Yo Gotti and Kavious enact changes to the standard Memphis rap script, they both still sound identifiably Memphis in vocal style and local color. (No contemporary music is more global than hip-hop, yet no music is more local either: "Str8 from Da North" means straight from North Memphis.) But perhaps what most separates these acts from the Three 6 style is the fact that their relationship with the opposite sex is more in line with mainstream hip-hop. It isn't always as progressive as one might hope (Gotti, in particular, could stand to retire the word "bitch"), but at least they aren't downright hostile. Both master the R&B/hip-hop hybrid form that's been such a commercial juggernaut in recent years (Yo Gotti pairing with Erika Kane for "Life" and Kavious joining Stephanie Bolton on "Early in the Morning"), and, more encouragingly, both manage to produce horny club cuts that make sex sound, you know, fun, instead of like combat. Kavious' "Take You Home" and "I Like the Way You Do It to Me" are effective sex-positive party anthems, but Yo Gotti takes the crown in this category with "Look at Old Girl," maybe his best bet for a breakout hit, a lovably silly novelty where a kiddie-chorus chants, "Look at old girl do her dance/She's got the whole wide world in her pants."
Both Kavious and Gotti are respectful of the local rappers who have come before them, Gotti shouting out Three 6 Mafia on Life's very first lyric and Kavious giving props to every local rapper of any renown in his liner notes (including Gotti). But they're also pushing at the boundaries of the local sound and style, and that's nothing but good news.