For a brief period in 2005, Houston’s Rap scene hijacked listeners’ ears. With songs like “Still Tippin,’” fans were pining for jewel encrusted grills, Styrofoam cups and candy painted slabs. But the third coast’s mainstream popularity chucked the deuce as quickly as it had arrived, and its army of new-found superstars was resigned to the footnotes of an episode of “I Love the '00s.”
Such is the struggle that Paul Wall faces with his latest LP Heart of a Champion, and it sounds as if he realizes it. Heart of a Champion features Paul at some of his best and most original moments. Sadly, thin lyricism and thinner song concepts drag the album into middling territory.
Paul Wall has never been the most audacious of emcees, yet what he lacks in lyrical chutzpah he makes up for in similes. Throughout the album’s 14 songs, Paul packs as many tightly-knit similes into as many bars as possible, spitting lines like, “I grind hard, my pockets’ full like Easter mass / My paper long, my money stretching like yoga class.” Granted, his simplistic rhyme style can grow wearisome after a dozen songs, but his peanut butter smooth delivery and outlandish imagery are more than enough to keep the masses entertained.
Heart does pack a number of lyrical punches that will have naysayers rethinking their dismissal of the People's Champ, however. The opening track “Take Notes” finds Paul eschewing his lyrical norm and approaching Travis Barker’s quiet Da Beatminerz-meets-808s production with a spitfire flow. Although the song’s content isn’t terribly unique, the technique and skill he displays is enough to make even the most ardent of haters hit the rewind button. Similarly, his introspective verse on the album’s stand out cut “Live It” proves that Paul Wall is deeper than syrup and swanging. Although guest artists Raekwon and Jay Electronica (with yet another scene stealing feature) are two steps ahead in the lyrics department, Wall assuredly holds his own against the two.
Unfortunately, Paul lets his talent go to waste all too often as he gets stuck in a mire of self-aggrandizing mediocrity. While a more capable emcee could make a fruitful career out of self-promotion (see: Cam’ron), Paul Wall seems to lose creative steam all too easily. Yet when Wall’s boasting is on-point, he’s as amusing as ever. Tracks like “Showin’ Skillz” with Lil Keke and “Imma Get It” with Bun B and Kid Sister are aptly boisterous trunk bangers, while the triumphant “Round Here” finds Wall reuniting with former Color Changin' Click partner Chamillionaire. Paul is even successful in waxing eloquent about his ability to burn trees (“Smoke Everyday”) and consume vast amounts of overpriced tequila (“I’m On Patron”).
Sadly, the rest of Champion is a fairly anemic collection of filler and ill-fated attempts at rock crossovers. Songs like “Ain’t a Thang” and “ with Jim Jones and “Still On” are stale and uninspired, while the Yo Gotti-featured “My City” probably should have been left in 2003 with its tepid faux-crunk production. Even Wall’s Rap/Rock experimentation with his group Expensive Taste on “Heart of a Hustler” fails to elicit anything more than yawns. And then there’s “Stay Iced Up,” a sonic disaster of apocalyptic proportions, only exacerbated by TV Jewelry’s Johnny Dang’s cringe-worthy guest verse.
Much like the quality of songs, Heart of a Champion is pockmarked with hit-or-miss beats. Yet even when the production falls short, it still adheres to a cohesive sound that anchors the album in solid territory. Handled primarily by Beanz N Kornbread and Expensive Taste cohort Travis Barker, Champion effortlessly shifts between bass heavy southern bangers like “Round Here” and quieter fare like “Smoke Everyday.” Barker proves to be Paul’s ace in the hole, providing the album’s best beats, including the atmospheric “Take Notes” and jazzy “Live It.”
As flawed as it is, Heart of a Champion is still an album worthy of merit. Paul Wall exhibits a lyrical vigor unheard since his major label debut in 2005. While the album may not be a complete victory, he proves without a doubt that he’s still got the heart to be the People's Champ.