To summarize, Trae Tha Truth is not a people’s person. Hailing from Houston, the 15-year vet and pathological pessimist has turned shyness into a cottage industry. He is the rare MC in a predominantly extroverted genre to bespeak the merits of solitude—perhaps his most visible track to date is the untrusting loner’s anthem “No Help.” Misery, it turns out, doesn’t love company.
Lately, the retreat-prone, raspy-voiced rapper has had some legitimate gripes with the world. His late brother, Money Clip D, fell prey to gun violence in 2011; he fell off speaking terms with his cousin, the once-mighty Z-Ro, who lost his monopoly on Clutch City hip-hop thanks to repeat jail stints. Trae is now signed to T.I.’s Grand Hustle imprint, but fuck greener pastures: true to his origins, the Screwed Up Click alum remains gripped by inner turmoil. He pours his heart out on confessional new mixtape I Am King, rapping with a hungry hustler’s desperation.
Trae isn’t always miserable, though, and his frame of mind occasionally skews relaxed on I Am King. He and fellow Crip Snoop Dogg celebrate Houston car culture on “Old School,” while the rave-worthy “Stay Trill” will put the ultimate test to your subwoofers. Even in these moments, the album is dark from a musical standpoint, with heavy church organs and panicked horns. But gothic sonics aside, Trae is at least temporarily unexercised and able to see past his own grief. The gracious “Ghetto Life” shouts out rappers no longer with us, like Chris Kelly of Kris Kross fame.
Elsewhere, Trae’s heavy-heartedness rarely leavens. He looks back ashamedly at a life of poor choices on karma’s-a-bitch tale “Street Miracle.” On the oxymoronically titled “Dark Angel,” he raps, “At night, I talk to God, ain’t get back one sound / It’s hard to see light coming out when the sun down” before fretting about his son’s health woes and opportunistic inveiglers of the female variety. Best of all is the London On The Track-helmed “Shit Crazy,” where Trae plays the part of a street reporter, tallying the body count from the sidelines of another pointless turf war. As on 2006’s H-Town classic Restless, his material here oscillates between searchingly spiritual and ruthlessly unsentimental.
There are many guests on I Am King, not all of whom gel with Frazier Thompson. Meek Mill and GBE ambassador Lil Reese bring their usual swagger to “Ride Wit Me” and “Fucked Up,” respectively. Peach State purebred Kevin Gates, maker of arguably this year’s finest rap song (the interplanetary hymn “4:30 AM”), rises to the occasion with an animated turn on “Dark Angel.” But Lupe Fiasco struggles on the hair metal-tinged “Driven.” So too does T.I. on the otherwise banging “Hold Up.” “Ugly Truth,” featuring B.o.B, similarly butchers a sample of Lana Del Rey’s indie tearjerker “Young and Beautiful.”
That said, Trae can be forgiven for a few honest mistakes, given the magnitude of his troubles. While the tape’s moody palette will bum some listeners out, Trae keeps it really real on I Am King. The proceedings start with a boastful bid for monarchial rule (“Hold Up”), but by tape’s end, this Mo City griever has self-extradited to a lonely, claustrophobic hellscape.—M.T. Richards