Trel’s breakout mixtape, 2010’s No Secrets, landed like a cluster of public-school kids robbing a man for his Washington Sports Club gym bag. It’s reckless and raw, but also funny and crammed with perfect similes. “I got a hundred stories like old folks,” Trel raps in “Deep Thoughts.”
Released on the same day, No Secrets and Black Cobain’s Now were the inaugural mixtapes from the Board Administration, a local imprint owned by slow-burner rap phenom Wale and entertainment entrepreneur Le’Greg O. Harrison. Wale’s own breakout success with 2008’s The Mixtape About Nothing helped spark a minor renaissance in area hip-hop. Now Wale was sharing the glow of his star wattage.
“Wale opened the door,” says Angela Byrd, who until 2011 directed publicity for the Board Administration. “Before him, the DMV wasn’t drawing interest.” In his early years, Wale was known as a fairly cosmopolitan rapper: He liked wordplay, sneakers, and television sitcoms. “It hasn’t been an easy role for him because he speaks to the suburban Maryland kids,” says Byrd. “[Wale] went to college, yet he grew up with very real struggles like sharing a bed with brothers and sisters in a big African family. Fat Trel speaks for the angry kids in D.C.”
In other words, Wale habitually name-checks D.C., but his credentials are cross-checked just as often. Fat Trel doesn’t have that problem. He grew up in Ward 5, raps about the game, and still lives some of the time with his mom. “I think it’s because I’m the real definition of D.C.,” says Trel by way of diagnosing his popularity. “But that’s also about representing D.C. in a good way. Some artists are real D.C. niggas but their craft isn’t there. The music isn’t there. It’s about me being a real D.C. representative in a real way.”
If Trel has become more of an occasional presence on local urban radio, thank the kids for that, too. Nikki House, the programming direction at WKYS-FM, cites the rapper’s grassroots hustle and social-media savvy. “Trel’s had an underground following forever,” House says. “Eventually some of your fans get gigs in radio. It was our Web people and our interns hired to do promo events that got him on our radar.”
On the most superficial level, Trel is admired because he echoes Lil Wayne, circa 2005: He sports regional slang, gruff vocals, and fast lines that are equally confident over dirty, bouncy bangers and pimpin’, soul-sampling beats. As with a lot of DMV rappers, you can hear a handful of styles colliding in Trel’s music. But one stands out: the South. People want to hear exemplary, bass-driven mood music at the pop level, and on much of No Secrets, that’s what Trel delivers. (“No work in the city so we goin’ down south,” he says in “Trappin’ Like a Fool.”)
On paper, Trel’s guns-and-strippers raps are an odd fit for any of Wale’s numerous personae. The rappers’ best collaboration on No Secrets, “Freak a Melody,” disproves that thesis. With its carbonated Freelance Whales sample, the song is total hipster bait, but Trel prosecutes his verses without blushing: “I had to take the stairs, I usually take the elevator, every now and then I eat that nookie like a Now & Later,” he raps, twisting the indie-pop original’s central lyric.
Although it is mostly comprised of the kind of lowbrow bangers Trel loves, No Secrets contains a handful of other genre experiments, plus appearances from artists well outside Trel’s niche. His musical catholicity works because he’s both honest-sounding and playful. Narratives stay firmly grounded in the ’hood; he doesn’t fuck with surreality or aspiration. Out of hip-hop’s handful of archetypes, he isn’t a king, a bawse, or even really a gangsta. Like Wayne, he’s more of a thugged-out, occasionally introspective jester—the Fat Fool.
“Mostly it’s like ‘Wow, he’s a really talented dude,’” says Phil Adé, another young, radio-friendly, popular D.C. rapper—second place on the WKYS list—who’s collaborated with Trel even though they’re near-opposites. “We hadn’t seen that street side of music in the scene...He’s a big kid. He’s a good dude that raps about where he lives.”
No Secrets was too long and rangy to qualify as an instant classic. Nonetheless, in the second half of 2010, it catapulted Trel close to the top of the local game.
But instead of being the Year of the Fat Fool, 2011 was the year logistics undid Trel.