Release Date: March 26, 2012
If raw talent were as valuable as buzz in hip-hop, then Fat Trel would be a superstar. On a pure performance level, the 21-year-old goon-rap prodigy possesses a commanding presence that must seem almost unfathomable to his peers. Though he remains relatively unknown on a national level, Trel has built a loyal following in his Washington, D.C. hometown over the past three years, demolishing speakers and stages alike with a restrained aggression that would make Rick Ross seem unhinged. His just-released Nightmare on E Street is his fifth mixtape during that time, and like those before it, offers only frustratingly brief glimpses of his greatness.
It’s unclear if this is a case of Fat Trel failing to do justice to his recordings or vice versa. Originally scheduled for a November 2011 release, and teased endlessly in concert and with YouTube trailers, the Nightmare project stalled when Trel split with his manager, who subsequently held the masters hostage. As anticipation grew, Trel was then forced to rerecord the album from scratch; listening to the final product, one can’t help but wonder if some superior alternate version isn’t slowly turning to dust on a hard drive somewhere. (For example, nothing that made the cut quite matches the drumline attack of the original “Intro,” which leaked in December and remains otherwise unreleased.)
Even on his off days, Trel’s booming delivery simply works on a rap song. He just sounds good, and essentially this is a function of pedigree. Unlike so many young rappers today, Trel didn’t learn to rap in bedroom studios, but on the stages of the backpacker-leaning uptown-D.C. open mics. He inherited the craft-oriented rap tradition of that scene and multiplied it with his thick D.C. accent (where airs are urrs and ehs are ayes) and the energy of street rappers like Ross and Waka Flocka Flame. Despite the fairly limited scope of his subject matter — he fucks hoes, he does drugs, he does drugs while fucking hoes and then sometimes he gets sad — Trel is still a sharp writer. He transcends these clichés with a slanted and syllable-obsessed style in the mold of Young Dro or Gucci Mane: “Stopped by Anacostia / A crop of bitches flocked the bus / Shocked at how I rocked the show to stop / I got the stamina.”
And yet Nightmare on E Street never quite explodes in the way it should. Trel’s the rare rapper still capable of producing time-stopping oh shit rewind moments (when people still cared about such things, this was called “blacking out”), and he thrives on them, but they are few and far between here. His verses just roll by in a somber flatline. And while the production lineup boasts mixtape heavyweights like Lex Luger, Big K.R.I.T., and Harry Fraud, their contributions feel slight, reserved even. All the right components are present — evil John Carpenter synths, punishing 808s — but they don’t quite peak the way Trel and Luger’s street hit “Respect with the Tech” did last year. Instead, E Street is a weirdly understated collection of just-good-enough, album cut-caliber, wrecking-ball rap, simultaneously mournful and menacing, but with no specific intent. It’s as if they were scoring the calm before the riot and never got around to the riot itself.
At least that’s true of the first 30 minutes or so. Somewhere around the album’s midpoint, Trel gets ahead of himself. He abandons formula and indulges in the sort of ill-advised commercial concessions that an artist usually reserves for a major-label debut, not a would-be breakout mixtape — ballads, airplay bids, and incongruous cameos from the likes of New York radio also-ran Red Cafe, Drake-lite hitmaker Kirko Bangz, and, most appallingly, Tommy Hilfiger’s junkie-chic wheeze-rapping son Rich Hil. “Nightmares” goes full-on trance pop, and “Benning Rd,” an ode to selling drugs and shooting dice on the rather notorious stretch of East D.C. street, inexplicably takes the form of warmed-over Roscoe Dash-style swag rap, circa 2009. The very lumbering presence that makes Trel a force to be reckoned with in the field of aggro trap rap leaves him completely out of place on these records. It’s not that he can’t rap on them, it’s that he overpowers them completely. Everything and everyone surrounding his verses sounds laughably amateurish by comparison.
He finally breaks the sell-out pattern toward the end of the tape, with a closing three-song run that includes the morality-deconstructing near-masterpiece “Devil We Like” and a short but chillingly graphic “Outro,” which paints Trel as a redemptive hero in the wake of a neighborhood murder: “Hood nigga, good heart / The streets chose me.” It’s a strong dismount, strong enough to sustain enthusiasm for his next project. Then, hopefully, Trel can finally prove as tasteful as he is talented.