When the camera isn’t focused on the two stars of the 2001 music video for Ludacris and Jermaine Dupri’s “Welcome 2 Atlanta,” you can make out clusters of people lurking in the background. Look hard. Even among the video’s massive club and street-side scenes you can pick out a then-unknown T.I., Ying Yang Twins, Jazzie Pha and a pre-crunk Lil’ Jon. It’s a wonderful moment to look back on simply because we know how much the modern hip-hop scene is saturated with Atlanta talent. Mike Jones may ultimately do for Houston what that epochal video did for Atlanta: take a local scene and thrust it into national prominence.
Should all go according to plan, Mike Jones’s debut album, Who Is Mike Jones?, may be the first notable emissary from Houston’s legendary “Screwed N’ Chopped” scene.
With the tempo ratcheted down to a snail’s pace, sluggish sampling and best enjoyed while drunk off cough syrup, Mike Jones, a Houston rap stud from the famed Swishahouse label, is an ambassador from a nation of rap music unlike anything you’ve ever heard.
And when Who Is Mike Jones? sticks to its guns, it’s a sloppy, hazy and mesmerizing listen.
The lead single, “Still Tippin’,” is five minutes of bleary-eyed greatness where Mike Jones repeats the same lines, Slim Thug and Paul Wall (two other Swishahouse studs) give admirable guest verses and the bass drum kicks at the rate of a slow moving glacier. Casual pop fans keep expecting an obnoxious helium-like vocal track to rise from the background or some ubiquitous fly girl to begin chanting an asinine hook. But, in what must be a first, none of the above happens. The song concedes to no lame pop conventions. “Still Tippin’ ” is the most unique, uncompromising song of the year and reason enough to own the album.
The plodding, screwy melodies of “What Ya Know About,” “Back Then” and “Screw Dat” take the foreground of the album. Jones touches the usual themes with a foppish-dandy, singularly Texas confidence that puts a nice twist in places where someone like Fat Joe might sound uninspired or lazy. He often giddily recites a line four or five times in the same song, and is certainly a stylish, if not lyrically commanding, rapper. But that’s not really the allure of his album.
Jones is personable enough, but it’s the beats that stick around. When they leave their natural element and try to sound like everything else in the Top 40, like on “Flossin’ ” and “Laws Patrolling,” they lose their charm. When executive producer DJ Michael Watts is left to his own devices, the keyboard alchemy he makes sinks in like that famed Houston syrup.
It’s no secret that Mike Jones isn’t the best MC from Swishahouse. But he’s a hungry underdog, and he’s smart enough to let the melodies of his album work for him. While there’s never any clear answer to the titular question, maybe it’s for the best. Mike Jones has opened the door for Houston; let’s see who walks through it next.
Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars