The H-Town Countdown, No. 5: Lil' Keke's Don't Mess Wit Texas
There are roughly 84,000 rap albums that have been released in Houston since 1989. We're counting down the 25 best of all time. We'll be here every Thursday. Got a problem with the list? Shove it. Just kidding. Friendship. Email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Back in July (when this here Countdown was little more than a budding idea and a massive folder of scraps and notes and printed out emails) we wrote about the peculiar nature of Lil' Keke's underratedness.
Here's the thesis statement of that article:
"[Keke is] very John Everyman in his essence. His flow doesn't rumble under your feet like Z-Ro's, or rat-a-tat at your eardrum like Bun B's; it sits right in the middle [of your brain], which is where a lot of unimportant rappers fall, so he's lumped in with them.
However, Keke manages to sustain a feeling of importance despite this, which makes him subtly imposing, and that might be more impressive than being overtly imposing. Remember Eddie Johnson from those late '90s Rockets teams? He played 17 seasons in the NBA, was No. 22 on the All-time NBA Scorers list at the time of his retirement, and had one of the best "I just ripped your heart out" moments in Rockets playoff history against the Jazz in 1997.
But Johnson wasn't terribly athletic, so when you watched him play you never got the feeling that he was doing anything you probably couldn't do yourself. And you can't lionize somebody that you don't think is more talented than you are. It's counterintuitive. That's how it is with Keke. That's why he's underrated."
The important thing to glean from this though -- besides the obvious fact that it is, and will always remain, a spot-on observation regarding Keke's position on the Houston Rapper Ranking Scale -- is that there is no way that could have been written back when Don't Mess Wit Texas was first released.
Partly because we were only 16 at the time, and far more interested in trying to talk girls into letting us take their shirts off than dissecting the cultural significance of a rapper relative to the overall quality of his discography. But mostly because it would have been completely wrong, because when Keke dropped Don't, his debut album, he was a world beater.
"Southside," the regionally charged smash, certainly spearheaded the effort, and will always serve as the flagpole at the tip of the spire of Ke's career, but the entire album felt like the (second*) official declaration of the intent of the Screwed Up Click.: Essentially, to run shit.
*E.S.G.'s Ocean of Funk was the first attempt, however his immediate incarceration following the album's completion hindered his cause. Incidentally, this might reveal a reason for Keke's underratedness. E.S.G. might should've been the S.U.C.'s flagship national artist. Were it not for his arrest, this very well may have been the case. And we've all sort of come to accept that had Fat Pat not been murdered, Ghetto Dreams would've launched him into that role. But what about Ke? Death did not play antagonist to The Don. We really don't even remember him ever being locked up for any noteworthy stints around that time either. He's just always remained in the margins since then, woefully underrated. That's probably why he looks so pissed all the time.
To be clear, Don't Mess Wit Texas is the finest S.U.C. album officially released. It's followed closely by Fat Pat's Ghetto Dreams, which is then followed closely by E.S.G.'s Ocean of Funk. And notice, all three landed in the top 10 of The Countdown, which serves as an indicator of the strength of the Screwed Up Click when it was at its most legendary. The opposite of that, of course, the sadder part, is that no S.U.C. album made after 2001 found a spot, showing just how profoundly the deaths of Screw, Pat, H.A.W.K. and Big Moe affected Houston's landscape.
Ke' should've gotten his big payday. He never did. More to that point, he never will. DMWT, sadly, was the beginning of the end of his career -- this is relative to his mainstream success, mind you; Ke has released a wealth of material that Houston rap fans have gobbled up. Still, his name should ring out louder. Maybe not like Bun's or Pimp's, but certainly louder than Wall's or Jones's. It hasn't since 1997. More to the point: again, it never will.
But Don't Mess Wit Texas is the fifth most important album to ever be released by a Houston rapper. And it will be rated justly from heretofore. Even if he never will be.