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“Now we makin’ history, D.C. ain’t never seen this shit,” goes one line on Fat Trel’s new mixtape, the sort of customary rap boast listeners might usually brush off. In Trel’s case, though, it carries extra weight, because one of the District’s greatest musical anomalies is that it has yet to produce a legitimate mainstream rap threat. The closest we’ve come is Wale, who’s diluted his style in so many different bids for commercial success that he’s become a reliable artistic punchline. Now it seems that Trel, a Northeast product with a thick slur and a knack for nuanced tales of street life, is the DMV’s great hope.
The pressure of expectation is not lost on Trel, who released Nightmare on E Street last week amid talk of major-label interest and consideration from national media outlets. Unlike 2010’s No Secrets and 2011’s April Foolz, which balanced pop instincts with an aggressively local, crime-riddled brand of goon rap, Nightmare is wider in scope. In addition to the vivid and occasionally conflicted on-the-block bangers that are Trel’s specialty—he’s a gangster, but not always happy about it—here there are also raunchy sex jams, lighter nostalgic fare, and cracks at electronic-tinged, radio-friendly melodicism.
It’s enough to swallow a lesser rapper whole, but for the most part, the self-annointed Fat Fool pulls it off. His hidden weapon has always been his ear for hooks, which is amplified by the presence of big-name beatmakers like Big K.R.I.T. and past collaborator Lex Luger. Admittedly, Luger’s signature trunk rattle has threatened to run out its mileage over the past year, but here, it’s the right contrast for Trel’s deliberate, syrupy drawl. On tracks like “Geetchie” and “Swishers and Liquor” (produced by K.R.I.T.), Trel is confidently in his zone, letting go streams of violent trap-rap metaphors and creative non-sequiturs. (Sample line: “I broke the levee, we too heavy in my ’84/Pay me in pussy and marijuana, my llama cold.”)
Trel mostly runs into trouble by overextending himself. Quantity is the name of the game for rap mixtapes, and 22 tracks aren’t necessarily too many, but at nearly an hour and a half, Nightmare can be a lot to sort through. There are stretches that don’t play to Trel’s strengths: “Freak It,” “On Top of Your Girl,” and “Murder” comprise a vaguely uncomfortable suite of bawdy loverman tracks that feels like the work of a rapper dipping a toe into someone else’s pool. And the tape doesn’t make good use of all its guest spots. Odd-choice contributors like Red Café don’t add variety or flavor; bonehead Internet MC Rich Hil, the son of Tommy Hilfiger, is responsible for “Rollin’,” the album’s only true failure.
The majority of the tape is strong, though, and these missteps are easy to overlook. Trel has such a distinct vocal presence that just listening to him rap is fun. (The closest example may be Atlanta’s even slurrier Gucci Mane.) And crucially, he occasionally tempers his goon side, injecting moral contemplation into otherwise corrupt songs like “Devil We Like.” As for whether he’s the breakout star the DMV hopes for: The jury’s still out. Even with the catchy songwriting, Trel’s primary appeal is grit—realness, for lack of a better term—and there’s a possibility his music’s too hard, maybe even too regional, for the Top 40. Still, that we even have a D.C. rapper this compelling feels like a victory in its own right.