Of all the bizarre musical offshoots that have germinated from the fertile creative fields of rap music, none is more distinctive or fascinating than the Texan phenomenon known as ‘screw’. From its birth (and some would argue demise with DJ Screw’s passing) in the early ’90s, the screw scene has met with its share of repulsion and conversely, rabid adulation, but one thing it has never inspired is indifference- you either love or hate it. An attempt to describe the bastardized entity that is screw always revolves around one word- slowwwwwwww. Essentially, existent songs are slowed down to a sluggish, intoxicating plod, as the screw DJ takes the liberty of ‘chopping’, or bringing back several bars or sections of the hook/beat that he feels worthy of repetition.
As a musical culture that thousands of Texans feel fiercely passionate and devout about, screw’s musical validity is hotly debated throughout the nation, though it has displayed enduring popularity down South, where its fiercest advocates engage in rambunctious debates over their favourite screw DJs and MCs. Indeed, many enthusiasts have contended that the art form lived and died with its inventor and foremost exponent, DJ Screw, but it’s evident that screw has experienced a pronounced insurgence since, with Slim Thug’s recent inking with the Star Trak label and the appearance of various Swisha House alumni on tastemaking New York mixtapes serving as proof. While the storied era of DJ Screw and screw rap forefathers Screwed Up Click (consisting of such greats like Fat Pat, Lil Keke, Bun B, Hawk and ESG) has passed, screw has evolved from being a bad joke/ novelty to receiving mainstream acceptance. Of all the emcees poised to garner broader respect for Houston, perhaps none is more buzz-worthy than Chamillionaire, AKA King Koopa. Boasting a fanatical, fiercely loyal army of fans, Chamillionaire’s star has risen considerably since the earliest recordings with his clique the Color Changing Click, and his mastery of the down south independent hustle has placed him a position where he can disregard major label offers. With the release of this double CD compilation, a collection of brief ‘flows’ over existent, screwed tracks (what you East Coast kids call ‘freestyles’), Koopa extends a welcoming hand to the typically elitist, exclusive Houston screw scene, granting any greenhorns a chance to acquaint themselves with a rising phenomenon, and indeed a rising star- Chamillionaire.
There’s nothing avant-garde or obtuse on show here- if you are unfamiliar with Chamillionaire’s previous output with Paul Wall or Color Changing Click, his lyrical fixations revolve exclusively around brazen braggadocio. Koopa’s forte clearly lies in crafting audacious rhetoric about his bank account, his vehicles and the women who slob on his knob for both, and delivers them with a panache that eludes countless faceless, dime-a-dozen East Coast mixtape contemporaries. If you’ve been keeping up with the highly saturated mixtape scene the past 5 years, it’s likely that you’ve fallen victim to the punchline bug as you sift through thousands of ‘freestyles’, ravenous for an ingenious one-liner that radiates with wit and cleverness. Chamillionaire possesses these qualities in spades, and has a unique quality that distinguishes him from the hordes of Jadakiss/Fabolous clones that ply a similar craft- he doesn’t take himself too seriously. From chuckle-worthy lines like “When I say ‘Can I get your number?’ she say okay/ When you ask for hers, she say ‘No way'” and “I get more green than a vegetarian buffet”, Chamillionaire’s acute sense of humour makes for an enjoyable listen, testament to the fact that punchline rap does not necessarily have to be stale when approached with originality and style.
It is also evident that Koopa’s flow exhibits considerable structural strengths- the effortless, relaxed feel of his delivery belies the exactness and meticulously measured flow, as he easily rides the beats provided. This is, of course, highlighted by his emphasized enunciation (reminiscent of Texan peer and all-time legend Bun B) and the slowed-down tempo of the music, which grants him the perfect medium and sonic palette with which to graft his punchline-oriented verses. You never miss a line here, and it becomes strikingly evident why punchline rappers down South seem to trump their East Coast contemporaries- the primordial sludge of screw and subsequent ‘chopping’ allows lines to seep into your subconscious, thrusting the wit of the rapper to the very forefront of the mix.
Musically, the mixtape proves to be a fascinating proposition- screw always manages to resuscitate even the most played-out beats and infuse them with a vibrant new sense of life. Beats like “Oochie Wally” and “Batter Up” sound like they were made to be screwed, while beats like D.O.C.’s “No Surrender” sound better than they ever have when reduced to a dirge-like drawl. Even beats that one would typically smirk at in regular form- Eve’s “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” for instance, do a complete 180 when slowed down. Swisha House manage to transform “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” from an ill-advised saccharine stab at bubblegum pop-rap into a pounding, doomy track that reminds one of early Geto Boys.
As interesting as Chamillionaire’s restrained yet cleverly labyrinthine flow is, as starkly witty as his content is, and as intriguing as the screw medium is, it is inevitable that his monochromatic subject matter will prove to be his largest stumbling block. While he is clearly adept as his chosen field, two entire CDs of boasting can ultimately prove to be somewhat redundant. However, if you have been bred to believe that rap lives and perishes with the punchline, you would have no such gripes. Just don’t come in here searching for revelatory substance or insight, for Chamillionaire clearly has no such intentions.
For virgin ears unacquainted with Koopa, the rapidly ascending screw scene (where on earth have you been?), or cynics who have met Lil’ Flip’s recent endeavours with disdain (I feel you), this is an ideal starting point. For punchline mavens whose tireless quest to unearth the next Joe Budden has proved frustrating of late, Chamillionaire may well become your new favourite rapper. For the broad-minded hip-hop head in search of something more leftfield and outlandish than your typical Fat Beats vinyl, look no further. In a field littered with similar-sounding, less talented rappers, Chamillionaire’s finesse and dry sense of humour sets him in good stead to be another down South triumph. This is important listening that beckons your attention. At least Koopa doesn’t spend two discs indulging in his battle with Mike Jones this time (Mixtape Messiah anyone?)