Once upon a time, hip-hop's "third coast" was the music's red-headed stepchild. No more. As illustrated by not only the sales charts but also by this month's issue of the hip-hop bible The Source (dedicated to "The New South" and proclaiming itself "The Dirtiest Issue Ever"), the South is now ascendant, a coming of age that can be heard in three recent smash albums from the region: St. Louis rapper Chingy's Jackpot, David Banner's Mississippi: The Album, and Three 6 Mafia's Da Unbreakables, which debuted in the Top 10 on the Billboard album charts just when it seemed that Memphis' most successful rappers were about to fall off.
Is St. Louis the South? It's an eternal question, but Chingy seems to belong. If his clear drawl and St. Louis' otherness in relation to hip-hop's lingering bicoastal biases isn't enough, then his status as the hottest member of the Dirty South Mix Tape Tour (which will hit the Mud Island Amphitheater Friday, August 29th, along with Banner, Lil Jon & the Eastside Boyz, Field Mob, and the Ying Yang Twins) would seem to seal the deal.
On Jackpot, Chingy comes across as Nelly's more shameless, double-r-dropping lil bro, his single-of-the-summer candidate "Right Thurr" responsible for both the vernacular fad of the year ("I'll be late for dinner, durr. I'm getting my hurr cut after work and the oil changed in the curr. Hey, wurr did I leave my keys?") and probably my second-favorite recent lyrical moment when he rhymes "porkchop" with "shortstop" (which ranks just behind the part in "So Gone" where Monica threatens to drive by my house in her unmarked car).
But as deliriously fun as "Right Thurr" is, the rest of Jackpot reveals an Eddie Haskell quality to Chingy, his likable, charismatic horndog persona masking an uglier misogynistic streak that surfaces in the album's relentless pimp talk. And the protest-too-much aftertaste of Chingy's pimpcentric subject matter mostly negates the charms of his St. Louis sound, probably the lightest and most nimble regional style hip-hop has to offer right now.
If the St. Louis sound is hip-hop's airiest, then the Memphis sound might be the heaviest, the thickest, and, for cultural outsiders, the most impenetrable of hip-hop's regional styles. On Da Unbreakables, Three 6 Mafia tries their hand at a "Right Thurr"-style sex anthem with "Shake Dat Jelly," and the song's failure is instructive: Three 6 sounds a lot more convincing singing the praises of Jolly Rancher-laced cough syrup on the astoundingly weird "Rainbow Colors," where Robitussin rhythms + dramatic choral sample + Houston rapper Lil' Flip = mesmerizing silliness. Sex has never been the group's most compelling subject, and the masochistic chant "Give me head til I'm dead" on "Put Cha D. in Her Mouth" is probably the most unintentionally revealing explanation their music has ever offered.
But shrunk to a four-piece after losing members Gangsta Boo, La Chat, and Project Pat for one reason or another, Three 6 Mafia has come back strong on Da Unbreakables, probably the most listenable album the crew has ever made. Any type of crossover pop success for Three 6 is an unintended bonus: They make music for a loyal core audience (mostly real-life gangstas, wannabes, and outsiders titillated by racialized social pathology), and they supply what this audience wants. Those on the outside looking in aren't likely to find much of interest there, but given how reliably lucrative the strategy is, it's hard to fault them for it. So if belligerent chants like "Let's Start a Riot," "Beat em To Da Floor," and "They Bout To Find Yo Body" are strictly for the core, the rest of us can attend to the weirdness of "Rainbow Colors" or "Bin Laden" (a brand of weed, apparently) and the oh-so-welcome presence of Lil' Flip, the smoothest thug rapper since Too Short (whom he references on Banner's "Like a Pimp" single). Flip lends needed vocal gravitas to the Three 6 sound, his matter-of-fact verse on the single "Ridin Spinners" ("Throw the Rover keys/And let me roll/Cause this the way we ball/I'm just letting you know/We like our music slow/But our cars go faster") the highlight of the record.
But the best of the bunch by far is Banner, a hulking MC who comes across on Mississippi like a hip-hop Howlin' Wolf.
A decade ago, Arrested Development's "Tennessee" approached the South as a place to return to a reverse migration where the children of civil-rights-era parents could "climb the trees [their] forefathers hung from." That was an evocative way into a subject that hip-hop has rarely touched, but it's no match for Banner's, which examines "Mississippi" from the standpoint of those who never left, chastising fellow MCs by labeling the state "the place your mama ran from" and "the place you never mention in your songs."
The title track one of the most essential hip-hop cuts of the year, if not ever is the album's opus, a meditative acoustic guitar leading into a fast-paced flow a lot more Atlanta than Memphis, Banner reciting a long list of what Mississippi is: a place where "my soul still don't feel free and a flag means more than me," where "Medgar Evers lived and Medgar Evers died," where other rappers used to visit in the summertime, where "The rebel flag still ain't burnin'/New schools but the black kids still ain't learnin'," this litany balanced by colorful day-to-day details (it's also a place where the clubs still serve fried chicken).
What's also interesting is that, while Banner is the rare major-label rapper (and even more rare Southern rapper) with something to say, he still can't stop himself from indulging in the genre staples, mixing chaotic tear-da-club-up anthems like "F*** 'Em" and "Might Getcha" with more introspective tracks like "Mississippi" and the sad, gorgeous "Cadillac on 22's," which acknowledges the dichotomy.
As wide-ranging and compelling a debut as Mississippi is, the album hints that Banner could have even greater things in store: The record's down-home ease and local color and its tension between thug-by-the-numbers content and big ideas (and, thus, big risks he denounces the Bush administration and its war repeatedly and ferociously) is extremely reminiscent of the first record by a pair of Southern hip-hop pioneers you may have heard about: Outkast, whose desperately awaited new double-disc Speakerboxxx/The Love Below could finally relocate the capital of hip-hop below the Mason-Dixon before the year's over.