Paul Wall is probably the first white rap star who doesn't feel the need to talk about his race. No white rapper has ever managed to reach any level of fame without addressing his race, whether it be the Beastie Boys' downtown dorkatronix, House of Pain's Irish-pride chest-beating, Eminem's obsessive self-loathing, or Bubba Sparxxx's country-rap album. Even Vanilla Ice concocted an elaborately fake backstory and put the word "Vanilla" in his name. Not Paul Wall. If you never saw a picture of this guy, you'd have no idea that he's the only white guy in his video; you'd just know that he's a dude with a low, thick drawl who loves cars and diamonds. A large part of Paul's success comes from his sheer implausibility-- he's a goofy guy with a fratboy goatee who went to college and then made his name designing platinum grills, and he rolls with an underground, provincial rap crew who became tremendously famous once MTV realized that Houston has this whole long-standing self-contained rap culture.
None of this general weirdness (except the Houston stuff) actually comes through in Paul's music, which is all straight unadulterated H-Town rap, with all the slow booming drums and woozy organs and dizzying clustered bleeps that come with the territory. One of the reasons that The People's Champ succeeds is that it's the first album from Houston's rap Renaissance that doesn't remotely compromise the region's aesthetic-- it's all hazy, narcotic trunk music. Of the album's 17 tracks, only one was made by out-of-town producers, and even that track (DJ Paul and Juicy J's "I'm a Playa") has a heavy, off-kilter stagger that sounds completely Texas. Salih Williams and Mr. Lee, who produced, respectively, Mike Jones' "Still Tippin'" and Slim Thug's "Three Kings", both make appearances, but the album really belongs to the previously unknown producer Grid Iron, whose handful of stormy, gliding tracks are consistently the best on the album.
The record also boasts a number of ridiculously great guest appearances. One of the great things about Houston funk is that it forces out-of-town guests to conform to its aesthetics, so the album doesn't come off sounding like a patched-together collection of tracks. The R&B singer Trey Songz' guest spot on "Ridin' Dirty" is all gorgeous silky swagger, and it greases the track just right, while Lil Wayne spits cold, hard gangsta contempt on "March N' Step". It's a tribute to Paul Wall that Kanye Wests's near-perfect "Drive Slow" doesn't sound out of place when it appears here.
As for Paul himself, he's fine, nothing special. He's a better rapper than labelmate Mike Jones (notably absent here), but not as good a rapper as Slim Thug. (In fact, on the bonus screwed-and-chopped disc, Paul's slowed-down voice sounds almost exactly like Slim's normal voice, which is weird.) He sounds calm and matter-of-fact on top of these expert beats, and he truly loves to talk about diamonds: "I've got a deep freezer up in my mouth and sno-cones up in my ear/ A ice tray up in my mouth, I'm looking something like a chandelier."
Wall can be awkward and goofy, but endearingly so, as on the entertainingly ridiculous loverman track "Smooth Operator": "I got a way with compliments/ Girl, I'm sweeter than mints/ It'll be common sense to let the lovemaking commence." So Wall is a good rapper, but not a great one. But then, this is 2005, and all a rapper needs to make a good album is enough great, complimentary beats and guest appearances to keep the whole thing interesting all the way through. Like Game's The Documentary, The People's Champ has all that stuff.