Evan Gabriel knows St. Louis starts with the Prince of Darkness.
When I interviewed St. Louis group 3 Problems in June, they were still a trio, though they had just finished a phone call with Rello, the third Problem, who is serving a 10-year sentence for second-degree murder. The group’s most charismatic, Lil Tay now faces the loss of his other cousin and collaborator Swagg Huncho. On the morning of Dec 13th, the body of James Johnson Jr. was found in a yard of the JeffVanderLou neighborhood with two bullet wounds to the head. Marking the city’s 186th homicide, Swagg’s murder tragically came one week before his 19th birthday and the release of the latest 3 Problems mixtape, Free Rello. Suddenly, 3 Problems has been reduced to one, at least until Rello is up for parole in 2022.
Most of the instrumentals on Free Rello are comprised of cradle snares and tattered hi-hats. They adhere to the overused street-banger formula, but Swagg and Tay’s vocals carry the project. Save for some off-key misfires, auto-tune helps them experiment in unique vocal registers slightly different their first mixtape, A Problem Story. Tay’s voice has taken on a gruff, pain-ridden twang reminiscent of Boosie. Most of Swagg’s verses reveal the overbearing paranoia of everyday life in the North County area: “Never trust a soul on the phone, that shit old where I’m from.”
Swagg reinforced this exact sentiment in an interview with Ben Westhoff, which was filmed at an abandoned loading dock near North Broadway and Humboldt Ave, where the lifeless body of their close, non-rapper friend, Eugene “Geno” Stubblefield was found on the morning of January 18th.
“My Momma she needed the money, so I got it then brought it back home, they tell me my brother is missing, last night he didn’t make it home,” Tay rasps on “Go Get Some More,” explaining lessons learned in the O’Fallon Place projects, or present day Preservation Square. Even Wikipedia highlights the neighborhood’s few convenience stores as loitering centers for residents participating in “the informal economy,” and acknowledges the unstable atmosphere due to “many multi-generation residents in social gridlock and a high percentage of African Americans under the poverty line.”
For 3 Problems, death remained a factor up through the release of Free Rello. On September 9th, Lavell Boyd, another St. Louis rapper better known as Citystyles, was also killed. While stopped at a red light on North Broadway and Riverview Boulevard, two cars pulled up and opened fire on Boyd’s BMW. The 32-year-old Glasgow Village resident was murdered only a few miles up the street from the loading dock that Geno’s body was dumped months earlier. Citystyles appears on “Change Up,” as well last spring’s single, “Ball.”
Free Rello deals as much with grieving the lost as it does with paranoia in the present. “They wonder why I get high ‘till I can’t walk, and I sip lean ‘till I can’t talk,” moans a hauntingly self-aware Swagg Huncho on “Money Rule Da World.” The songs are terse narratives built from honest memories and oft-hostile premonitions. Making music about fighting to live beyond the poverty line creates a tense sound that doesn’t beckon radio play. But these songs aren’t just brainless boastings. Lil Tay and Swagg’s stories are rooted in daily circumstances and alarming statistics.
Of the 187 St. Louis homicides in 2015, an overwhelming majority (147) of the dead were black males, ages 17 to 19 years old. Out of 147 homicides, The St. Louis Police Department reports only 3 suspects. There are still no reported suspects for the murders of Geno or Swagg Huncho. Despite such bleak math, the buzz around 3 Problems continues to mushroom. Without a label deal, industry ties or a PR person, Free Rello already has nearly 40,000 streams on Datpiff, while the “Go Get Some Money” video has well over 100,000 views.
My personal favorite is “Free Rello Intro,” an upbeat war cry where Tay raps with pure ferociousness. He jeers his enemies by detailing a new Glock. He praises dead partners and incarcerated family members. With loud in his lungs, he mimics gun blasts for ad-libs before venting without reserve: “I got so many problems, that I made myself a problem.” Other standout tracks include “Respect,” featuring YD4ss, “Come Around Part 2,” and “RIP Skeezy.”
Just like the cover, Free Rello is dark. The songs vary in tempo and sentiment, but the lyrics are all wrought with distrust of virtually anyone outside the bloodline. Along with the intro dedication, tons of shout outs echo to Relly Rell, while the host, DJ Wildboy, asserts this is all “just a minor setback for a major comeback.” Although Tay spoke adamantly about a heap of unreleased songs during our interview, Free Rello may be the last official project tied to Swagg Huncho’s name.
Forced to stand alone, Lil Tay has become the lone Problem. On “My Ni**s,” he might offer the most accurate summation of his situation: “And we just talk to Rell, he back in his cell, he just got out the hole, blood crazy as hell, and rest in peace to Hammer, shit crazy as hell, I can’t take this shit, I lost a homie again.”