Far from their bespectacled and backpacked stereotype, most underground rappers are sonically and sartorially indistinguishable from their mainstream counterparts. Except many of these independent thugs would spit in Def Jam's eye like they were on Def Jux. Why play the crossover crapshoot when you can shift a respectable 100K out of your trunk? But even the hardiest soul survivors can't resist that MTV brass ring sometimes, especially with Jay-Z bleating about his G.O.A.T. status and all those one-hit wonders screaming thug life all the way to the bank.
Lil' Flip made his name on the stretch of highway that runs between Screwston and Delta crunk, crowned "Freestyle King" before he was even out of short pants. Rather than most crunk's proposed 121st day of Sodom, Flip's cheesy samples and genial demeanor are like a De La Soul drunk on pimp juice. (Maybe it's Houston's laid-back demeanor. Or all that cough syrup.) "Game Over," the lead single off U Gotta Feel Me (Sony), gets jack handy with the Nintendo music and discussion of expensive watches. But for a pop move, it's too generic: no different than all of those freestyles on all of those mixtapes that he still reliably churns out—which proves Flip at least knows which side his bread is buttered on.
Pastor Troy made his name mouthing off to Master P when the erstwhile Percy Miller was a commercial threat instead of a shill for Nickelodeon. Brash and shrill where Flip is slow and silly, there's also a socially conscious, religious core to Troy's work. Like compatriot David Banner, Troy's morality constantly struggles with the urge to get crunk. Unlike Banner's compulsive masterpiece Mississippi, however, By Any Means Necessary (Universal) is mostly hackwork, featuring the same old Dirty South boom-and-scuttle, indistinguishable despite his awesome voice—imagine Tickle Me Elmo on hormone replacements. Which is why, after six albums, Troy's got putting-in-work respect but little commercial success to show for it.
That's got to make him cranky when punks like J-Kwon jump up to get beat down. Kwon caromed into 2004 out of nowhere on the back of one of those singles you know is going to be inescapable from the first slurred r. But "Tipsy" is undeniable enough to pull even the stone-faced street soldiers and fat laced apostates. Is his album any good? Will he be pulling underground love when his 15 minutes are over? Does it even matter? No, no, and no. Hood Hop (Arista) is a rather joyless run-through of all the current sounds in the pop-rap palette: Neptunes-lite, crunk-lite, love-thug ultralite. But "Tipsy," at least, assures him his rightful spot on a future episode of VH1's I Love the 00s. If you're gonna cross over, it's better to go pop than fade away.