Maybe it’s the hot weather, but when I pulled “Southern Smoke 19” out of my mailbox, I knew it was just what I needed. An 80 minute refresher course in Southern rap. A CD I can optionally get crunk to or chill out to. As much as I enjoyed this treat, it’s time to give way to the critical thoughts that should accompany any review. Let me start with the price of admission. It’s hard to imagine that you would have to pay for such a heavily sponsored product. Not only does “Southern Smoke 19” advertise the 30 plus songs it features, the CD cover cross-promotes the latest Ying Yang Twins album “United State of Atlanta” and Rockstar’s Midnight Club 3 – Dub Edition video game (with an admittedly nice blend of the respective front covers). The Twins also host this mix-CD, along with Birdman (who too happens to have a new album out). If they’re not giving these away for free somewhere, charge it to the popularity of the mixtape format.

The latest installment in DJ Smallz’ “Southern Smoke” series isn’t an extraordinary mixtape, so why is it still so damn good? Because the South is still on top of things. I’m willing to bet that no other major region could provide that kind of experience at this moment. A simple list of the people who appear on this CD results in a compelling inventory of what the South has to offer these days. It boasts an array of industry impressarios and musical maestros (The Neptunes, Timbaland, Lil’ Jon, DJ Paul & Juicy J, Jermaine Dupri, Mannie Fresh, Baby). It is home to talented rappers who have the potential to become great MC’s period (Ludacris, Slim Thug, T.I., Pitbull, Lil’ Scrappy, Young Buck, Bubba Sparxxx, Killer Mike). It has its own hall of famers (8Ball & MJG, Juvenile, Scarface, Bun B, David Banner, Trick Daddy, Three 6 Mafia). And it has brought forth a breed of rappers specialized in getting any party crunk (Ying Yang Twins, Bone Crusher, Dem Franchize Boyz, Chyna White, Birdman, Mike Jones).

DJ Smallz, DJ for Slim Thug and “Dirty South DJ of the Year” nominee at last year’s Justo Mixtape Awards, presides over them all, making sure we get to savour almost the entire spectrum of sounds the South has developed. There’s the underground grind of “Hold Up” (Bun B f. Chamillionaire and Stat Quo), the sirupy, symphonic funk of “ASAP (Remix)” (T.I. & The P$C), the dark, creepy atmosphere of “Dis Me” (Big Gee), The Neptunes’ Clipse-tested gangsta boogie of “Bang Bang” (Fam-lay f. T.I. and Scarface), the countrified crunk of “Hey!” (Bubba Sparxxx), the deeply resonating boom accentuated by stuttering snares of “Bitches (Remix)” (Da Backwudz f. Lil’ Flip and 8Ball), Lil’ Jon’s sparse keyboard mastery on “I’m a King” (T.I. & The P$C), the stretched textures of “Let’s Roll” (Mr. Magic f. 8Ball & David Banner), the string staccato of “10 Toes” (Jermaine Dupri f. Stat Quo, J-Kwon), Mannie Fresh’s percussive key stabs on “Animal” (Juvenile), the hypnotic keys of “Like Me (Remix)” (Dem Franchize Boyz f. Jermaine Dupri, Da Brat, Bow Wow), the pensive vibrato of “Niggaz Down South” (Killer Mike), or simply the good ol’ crunk of “Get Crunk (Remix)” (Lil’ Jon f. Chyna White).

Even giving these differences due consideration, there’s no denying that “Southern Smoke 19” ultimately offers little variation in style and content. A flaw that can be considered a forté, as it can be seen as a testament to how unified the South presents itself these days (the usual beefs aside). From Virginia to Texas, these guys know it’s their time to shine. Over the years, the Southern sound has become so universally accessible that most guests blend right in, whether they represent Jamaica (Elephant Man), the Yay (E-40), LA (Snoop), or NY (Busta Rhymes, NORE, Ashanti). And if you have a hard time understanding why everybody wants to be down with the Dirty, ask Killer Mike what’s so special about “Niggaz Down South”:

“You from up north, let me hip yo ass to somethin’, man
You players bammer and them hammers get to dumpin’, man
Hey, we ain’t actors, but we serious ’bout the drama, man
These boys’ll send ya in a box home to your mama, man
These boys’ll kidnap ya kids and baby mama, man
Them boys’ll set yo ass afire with them lamas, man
In New York City it’s the Bloods and the Kings, man
in Chicago it’s VL’s and GD’s, man
out West it’s the B’s and the C’s, man
Down South it’s just G’s gettin’ g’s, man”

A fact that certainly hasn’t escaped Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs. He went from picking Chopper and Freddrick for Da Band to establishing a full-fledged group from Down South, strangely enough stepping on West Coast territory by calling them Boyz N Da Hood. (Their “Gangsta” track additionally features an Eazy-E verse that has already been used by Erick Sermon.) After teaming up with DJ Smallz to bring you “Bad Boy South – The Official Mixtape,” he introduces Big Gee, apparently a joint venture between Bad Boy South and Block Entertainment. That he makes “Big Gee” sound like “Biggie” doesn’t exactly help the matter. As far as exclusives go, you’d rather stick to the historic Three 6 Mafia/8Ball & MJG collaboration “Stay Fly.” Soul traditionalists will probably cringe at the idea of Ray Charles “featuring” on a rap song with his timeless rendition of “Georgia On My Mind,” but Ludacris and the underappreciated Field Mob do a decent job on “Georgia.”

I find it amusing (and to be honest slightly annoying) that a CD which bears the official logos of X-Box, PlayStation, BET, MTV and others features a string of sexually highly explicit songs, but on the other hand it is reassuring to see that despite the heightened attention these rappers just go about their business. As Chamillionaire puts it in “Hold Up”: “Ain’t gon’ lie, I don’t know no Eminem, 50 or any Dre / but I’m paid independent, match that knot you got any day.”

DJ Smallz :: Southern Smoke 19
7Overall Score