Paul Wall is a snuggly, goofy shortstack who's probably really into pizza and playing that airplane game with his son. He has a squinty pug face and is ugly-sexy in a teddy bear/goblin way, which he wouldn't be if he were a Home Depot cashier instead of the unlikely king of Southern rap.
Wall has a thick, viscous Houston brogue and is enraptured with fronts, diamonds and Slabs (Houstonian slang for cars that are slow, low and bangin'). His semi-silly thug demeanor betrays his upstart ambition: the hip-hop luminary stockpiles scrilla by way of deejaying, emceeing, self-branding and kitting out the ballingest ballers in diamond grills.
Paw Waw, to use the Houston patois, is the product of a highly exclusive, localized species of music (H-Town rap) that exists within a highly commercialized and generic genus of music (American hip-hop). To understand him necessitates an understanding of Houston and rap. And understanding Houston and rap necessitates an understanding of DJ Screw, whose influence continues to haunt and permeate Southern rap, even though he died in 2000.
Paul Wall performs Tuesday, April 24, at the Smirnoff Music Center.
DJ Screw made a legit production style from the practice of slowing tracks way down for a woozy, drugged-out effect. This "screwing," which naturally couldn't really exist too long as a singular rap technique due to its novelty factor, was paired with "chopping," which is the application of a variety of fucked-up sound effects to the stretched-out cadence of the screwed track. The resulting sound is often mesmerizing—a full-bodied, hot-weather drawl with an appropriately dirty sonic undertow. Accidentally on purpose, the music conveniently reflects the local penchant for party drinks made with cough syrup.
The city's rap rep was developed around the screwed-and-chopped musical calling card and artists such as Lil' Keke, Lil' Flip (whose recent-ish mix tape in particular is sooo goood), the amazing Slim Thug, self-absorbed Mike Jones (sample lyric: "Mike Jones!"), Chamillionaire (boring) and our pal Paul, whose music is most representative of the regional aesthetic. Maybe holding fast to the moors of H-Town rap is something of an unconscious defense mechanism for the big Caucasian elephant in the room. Wall makes no issue of his whiteness, which is a happy surprise for those of us who don't care and don't need to hear an artist's banal justification for his social and cultural alliances. Paul Wall also happens to be the most commercially viable of all his Houston cronies, though that's likely less to do with the cracker factor and more to do with his sizable talent and aptitude for the stylish Southern rap the homogenous national game needs. Badly.
Before Paul Wall (born Paul Slayton) was flashing his icy smile on cable, he was developing his game in the Houston trenches. Wall and Chamillionaire came up around the same time (and are ridiculously young—they were born in 1980 and 1979, respectively), were both part of the Color Changin' Click, and put out an album together on the Paid in Full label in 2002 called Get Ya Mind Correct. Wall then recorded his solo debut for Paid in Full, called Chick Magnet, and he and Chamillionaire worked together on Controversy Sells before a standard-seeming beef split them up. Wall headed back into the fold of a local rap institution, Swishahouse. The label, run by screwed-and-chopped phenom Michael "5000" Watts, had previously employed Wall as a promoter/butt boy.
The commercial go-time was Wall's guesting gig with Mike Jones on the single "Still Tippin'," after which Wall released the prophetically titled The Peoples Champ on Swishahouse in 2005. The record hit No. 1, knocking out Kanye West's Late Registration, which includes a collab with Wall on the sleepy "Drive Slow. " "Sittin' Sidewayz," the first single from The Peoples Champ, served as a perfect ingress to a culture perpetually hunting for a juicier beat and newly aware of the fully formed hip-hop planet Dirty South.
The Southern rap that flows through the major labels also originates throughout Atlanta and in the crunk scene in Memphis, among other Dixie outposts. By the time it reaches Joe iPod, it's been sanded down to varying degrees by contractually mandated collaborations, radio-friendliness and overproduction. Wall is absolutely complicit in projects like this, but for the most part, his solo work is illustrative of what's up in H-Town.
But just because Wall sticks to his Houstonian music methods and named his newest record Get Money, Stay True doesn't mean he has a particularly strict notion of what "staying true" means. And by that we mean to say Wall participated in "About Us," an ultra-embarrassing song/birthday gift from daddy Hulk for celebretard Brooke Hogan. Likewise, Wall wasn't above doing a high-profile hookup with shouty irritant Nelly for the "Grillz" track. That isn't to say the clip for "Grillz," featuring the most adorable pot belly on a video ho and a whole lot of shiny fronts, wasn't spellbinding.
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So far, Paul Wall's endless grill talk has been entertaining and sort of endearing, like when a little kid is hugely into one specific toy and is constantly wiggling to tell you all about it over and over. Wall can carry off this quirk because he's an appealing character, an Oompa Loompa of rap who is mostly about the fun absurdity of bling-focused materialism (and making the sex) and not about overt aggression. He's solidly against conflict diamonds, which is sort of a cute concern for a man whose professional life involves the construction of glittering fronts—seriously, dude is a jeweler who will make you a grill. The lyrical recycling, however, isn't just thematic: Wall makes multiple references to snow cones, igloos, ice trays and George Foreman (who also makes a living selling grills, geddit?). A choice selection: "But it's my smile dat's got these onlookers spectatin'/My mouthpiece simply certified a total package/Open up my mouth, and you see mo' carrots than a salad." One hopes the college-educated Wall knows it's actually "carats" and that he's not spending his stacks on anything less than D flawless rocks.
Otherwise, Wall's lyrics are usually pretty amusing. His track "Internet Going Nutz" from The Peoples Champ jokes about checking e-mail, posting on message boards and finding strangers to bang. The title track from Chick Magnet is a horned-up playa's refrain that's more thoughtful than grody. Wall sags on "Girl" from The Peoples Champ, a sobby breakup lament that is the wrong kind of "Paul Wall slow jam." Wall's part in the excellent Lil' Keke track "Chunk Up the Deuce" off Loved by Few, Hated by Many is an expected blingathon (he's with his boys; he's got to impress).
Get Money, Stay True (released March 31) features a new roster of producers such as Jermaine Dupri, KLC and Mr. Lee, as well as a certain hit, "Break 'Em Off." He's also been working with Travis Barker (ex-Blink-182—yeah, we know) and "Skinhead" Rob Aston on a rap project called Expensive Taste, which is different, harder and definitely good. But no matter what this elfin figure touches, it inevitably turns to ice.
The death knell of hip-hop is derivative, unoriginal music—the sort local scenes tend to cultivate after the collective peak has been reached. Not that Wall is in much danger of bending to blandness; as a pop-culture character, Paul Wall already embodies an intriguing brand of weird, a genuine presence above- and underground. I remember seeing Wall for the first time—more specifically, his big face and sparkly grin filling up a TV screen for the first time. His Swishahouse gang, whose collective is as lo-fi indie as it is a think tank for hot Southern rap, are more focused on mix tapes and whatever sounds dope than conforming to the more established artists' standards (quite the opposite—more than a few Top 40 types have been helping themselves to Houston's flavor). He's got a wife (singer Crystal Wall) and a son. He works fast. Whatever sound shapes H-Town or Southern rap next will be partially the result of Wall's efforts.