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Dallas rap trio The Outfit, TX follow last year’s acclaimed Green Lights: Everythang Goin’ – one of FACT’s top albums of 2016 – with a lean full-length dripping with dedications to their city’s most valuable resource. John Twells puts $20 in the tank and cruises through one of the year’s most high-octane rap albums.
I never watched Dallas, but growing up in the 1980s its presence was unavoidable. The image of J.R. Ewing was a specter of white American riches – an emblem that represented the unchecked, selfish capitalism that haunted my childhood as local factories decayed, mines flooded and pickets flew.
Whenever I think of Dallas, Texas, this fetish remains pinned to the front of my mind: the oil-rich, sneering embodiment of human greed; the CRT-warped display of a system that benefits the few while the rest of us watch, powerless to engage. But the truth is rarely that simple. In reality, Dallas is a bustling, diverse city filled with contradictions. Sure, there are countless totems to America’s viscous black god, but there’s also a decidedly unique regional art and music scene that’s all too often confused or ignored.
The Outfit, TX are among the Dallas scene’s most prominent acts. Established in 2009 by school friends Dorian, JayHawk and Mel, the trio initially carved out their niche by keeping everything in-house. Production was handled by Mel and Dorian, mixing by Mel and artwork masterminded by the group. An independent spirit and a focus on a self-styled “space age” sound helped TOTX grow quickly – their moody 2015 full-length Down By The Trinity was quite rightly acclaimed for its idiosyncratic gloomy Southern backdrop, haunting imagery and eerie vocals. The cover, that pictures the trio in black hoods alongside a cross and a burning confederate flag, feels almost prophetic.
But last year, something shifted. On Green Lights: Everythang Goin’, TOTX enlisted local production duo Stunt N Dozier – Mr. Rogers protégés who have credits on everything from Dom Kennedy to Beat King – giving Mel and Dorian a chance to concentrate on rapping. The focus was different now: sick of finding themselves amongst “a bunch of 35-year-old plus old rich white folks”, TOTX looked to the strip club, embracing booming 808s and machine-gun snares while retaining the woozy, pitch-black cynicism of their previous records.
Fuel City continues the trio’s long voyage back to earth, setting its sights on Dallas and its mess of contradictions. Even the title itself is a reference to the city’s stark divide. Described by CNBC as a “bizarre Disneyland of truck stops,” Fuel City is a gas station, car wash, convenience store and taco stand that acts as a crossroads, separating the hood from Dallas’s more affluent north. But the title also points to Mel, Dorian and JayHawk’s drive to propel their sound to the next level, and the fuel could just as easily be Dallas itself, a city built on oil and still hypnotized by its promise of financial liberty.
Like its predecessor, Fuel City allows TOTX to handle just rapping while production is outsourced, but this time they’ve cast their net further outside the city. Uptempo, strip club-ready bangers are provided by Atlanta’s Lil Mister, Ear Drummers’ GT Musick and Miami producer Mitch Mula, sitting alongside tracks from Dallas locals DJ T-Walk and Franchise. The shift is notable; if TOTX were criticized for moving too far into strip club territory last time, abandoning the grit and darkness of their earlier records, Fuel City is a raised middle finger, dipped in oil and electroplated with 24-carat gold.
But that’s the point – the pillars of respectability that framed their earlier catalog sounded impressive but felt flimsy next to a group so helplessly fused with the Dallas bedrock. Creating a soundtrack for the strip club and the whip is their truth, and they preach it with confidence and no small amount of panache. “Gimme the cash, gimme the cash / How can I make me some money real fast / Pedaling gas, pedaling gas,” slurs Mel on opener ‘Big Splash’, coolly using the drug trade as a metaphor for his city’s fixation. Elsewhere, on the anthemic ‘Goin’ Up’, they enlist local legend C Struggs (aka Da Fat Crip) to drape bars around a series of chanted hooks that drip with so much sweat, you can practically smell the club.
If there’s any criticism, it’s that Fuel City is a drag race rather than a rally, a far cry from their extended earlier full-lengths. It’s a brief 10 tracks and rarely eases off, though there’s a much-needed pit-stop with ‘Insumnia’. “I don’t even dream, I’m up tryna get that,” Mel laments, allowing the album to drift into eerie nihilism before it draws to a close. While Pam Ewing was free to dream of murder and boundless riches, The Outfit, TX know that their furious grind is a more accurate picture of Dallas. “Life is like luck, it’s a dice game,” adds JayHawk, exasperatedly signing off with, “Fuck, man.” They don’t have any option but to play.
John Twells is on Twitter