Mano Sundaresan is drawing doodles.
“Oh, I’ll never forget his face,” said Skip Pepe, a 65-year old Arlington, TX native who was allegedly robbed and assaulted by rapper Tay-K in May. In an interview with NBC 5, Pepe claimed that while on his daily stroll through Cravens Park, Tay-K crept up from behind with a revolver and faintly said, “Give me your wallet.” He refused, and his assailant knocked him unconscious. Pepe identified Tay-K in a photo lineup for detectives and again in a lineup for NBC. He was taken aback by Tay-K’s youthfulness. “Looks can be very, very deceiving, and he’s very deceiving.”
Pepe’s case is the latest in a series of charges against the 17-year-old Tay-K, born Taymor Travon McIntyre, whose song, “The Race,” has caught the attention of the mainstream with its blurring of art and life. It’s a great song, the beat an infectious standout among Pierre Bourne imitators, but its transcendent quality comes from its jarring honesty. Tay-K raps about being on the run while actually on the run: “But I couldn’t beat that case, bitch I did the race.” As of my writing this, “The Race” sits at number 44 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Pieced together from the internet, Tay-K’s story is straightforward. In July 2016, Tay-K and six others were charged in a Mansfield, TX home invasion that led to the murder of 21-year old Ethan Walker. Tay-K was released from custody and placed under house arrest while waiting for a hearing to determine whether he should be tried as an adult for murder. However, this past March, shortly before the hearing, Tay-K broke his ankle monitor and fled from the authorities.
While on the run, Tay-K picked up two more charges, one for a San Antonio murder and another for assaulting and robbing Pepe. He also recorded and released new material. According to a New York Times article, Tay-K’s 16-year-old manager Ezra Averill would receive songs from random emails, one of which was “The Race,” a burst-fire stream of consciousness over a “Pierre Bourne x Playboi Carti type beat” (seriously). The accompanying music video was released on June 30, the same day Tay-K was captured by Marshals in New Jersey.
Tay-K was extradited to Fort Worth, TX, where he now awaits his hearing. He appeared in court on August 31, but his trial was pushed back due to lack of evidence. According to a Texas lawyer, he is being tried as an adult and could potentially receive either a life sentence or the death penalty for his capital murder charges.
In the video for “The Race,” which now has over 30 million views on YouTube, Tay-K smokes up next to his own wanted poster, totes guns around a dark, nondescript house, and at the end, speeds off in a Corvette. It all happens so fast. At a minute and 45 seconds, it feels unfinished, like it was all Tay-K had time to record before the chase resumed. “Fuck a beat, I was tryna beat a case” is adrenaline-laced hubris. The song reads like braggadocio but the video plays like a distress signal.
If you watch the video without context and there’s an off-putting innocence to it. You begin to notice things: his pebbly eyes, his goofy-looking clique (did they get in trouble for being in the video?), his fingers whizzing like Naruto’s mid-jutsu as he throws up an intricate set, the lone Nerf gun among the real ones. It’s almost comical.
But then reality strikes, and the shaky visuals ground themselves in brutal honesty. The wanted posters are real. Taymor McIntyre the alleged criminal is real. Music video turns to footage. It’s utterly captivating.
Twitter has taken notice. The #FREETAYK movement has gone viral, receiving endorsements from artists like Travis Scott, Desiigner, and Meek Mill. Lil Yachty, Lil Bibby, and many others have recorded their own freestyles over the “Race” instrumental. Kodak Black, whose former lawyer James McMillan is representing Tay-K, said he wanted to sign Tay-K in a recent Instagram live stream.
I can’t deny Tay-K’s virtuosity. He’s clearly inspired by drill, barking his verses with the tenacity of Young Pappy or a teenage Chief Keef, but he brings subtle technicality, skittering over beats with quarter-note-triplet flows and letting his vocal rhythms undulate and meander.
Still, it’s impossible to separate art from artist. On his mixtape #SantanaWorld, released on July 18, Tay-K doesn’t shy away from his controversial past. The hypnotic “Murder She Wrote” becomes difficult to listen to. Its opening line, “Ran up with some hope and he ran off as a ghost,” gains eerie plausibility. Tay-K’s once-clever Capcom comparisons on the late 2016 street hit “Megaman” now feel like litotes.
But it’s the grating “I Love My Choppa” that evolves the most from Tay-K’s backstory. A bizarre addition to a history of rappers anthropomorphizing firearms—“And that yoppa might as well be a fe’ / Cause it got two arms and some feet”—turns to a frighteningly believable infatuation with an AK-47. The track’s “Boyz-N-The-Hood” bells and Eazy-E shout-out carry more weight too. In a 2015 Rolling Stone interview, Ice Cube said he missed the late MC’s “sense of humor, his sense of marketing and just how he knew what people wanted all the time. He was just a smart cat.” Tay-K seemingly embodies Eazy-E’s brand of realness—the cutting, punchline-driven reality rap that sells records. Yet it’s the synthesis of his street rap and legal troubles that has elevated his celebrity.
#SantanaWorld is hip-hop hyperreality. It’s a problematic spectacle for the masses. Its name pays homage to Santana Sage, Tay-K’s friend and fellow member of the rap group Daytona Boyz who is currently awaiting trial for the murder of 20-year old Sara Mutschlechner. According to the Star-Telegram, Sage shot Mutschlechner from his car on New Year’s Day 2016 after a show in Denton, TX after she turned down his sexual demands. Tay-K, then 15, was in the backseat of Sage’s vehicle when the shooting occurred.
When you visualize Tay-K’s tales of shootouts and heists, you see those flashing CNN headlines. You see the mugshot of a 17-year-old who still resembles an adolescent. You see that hypothetical lethal injection. It’s brutal, it’s ghoulish, it’s real.
It’s hard to justify Tay-K’s actions, but the “product-of-his-environment” thesis is admittedly strong. Tay-K was born in Long Beach, California to Crip-affiliated parents. He moved to Las Vegas at the age of eight, and after his dad got out of prison, to Arlington, TX, a year and a half later. His mom still lives in Long Beach, and he barely speaks with his dad.
With little support from his parents, Tay-K always had to fend for himself. After getting kicked out of high school, he left behind his education to engage in the get-rich-quick mentality of Arlington’s sprawling gang scene as a Hoover Crip.
Arlington, TX and the greater Dallas-Fort Worth region are a major hub of gang violence. According to the 2017 Texas Gang Threat Assessment, released by the Texas Department of Public Safety in July, there are as many as 100,000 gang members in the state of Texas. Gangs like the Crips, Bloods, Sureños, and Tango Blast maintain a strong presence in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, advertising themselves and recruiting new members through social media. With roughly one in four children living in poverty in Arlington (according to 2015 US Census data), joining a gang is an alluring shot at opportunity for many kids.
Tay-K reps his criminal lifestyle in his music because it’s his reality. To us, it’s wrongdoing, but to him, it’s a necessary evil. Moreover, Tay-K and his team recognize the hip-hop community’s obsession with realness.
Don’t get me wrong, realness isn’t the rock-solid foundation of hip-hop that it used to be. It’s a slippery concept, its semantics having shifted from truths to tropes. Pusha T hasn’t touched a brick in 15 years, yet he continues to embody coke rap. Rick Ross was a correctional officer who now poses as a kingpin. These are two of the most respected voices in rap today.
However, we yearn for juicy narratives. We want honest, unfamiliar stories. Prodigy’s opening line in “Shook Ones (Part II)” proves his immortality: “I got you stuck off the realness.” Realness sticks to our collective consciousness like a dagger. As I write this, “The Race” comes on in the Spotify “Most Necessary” playlist I’m listening to. Realness sells.
Lawrence Neil digs deep into this in his POW essay on 21 Savage, another rapper whose aura stems from his realness:
The marketability of his authenticity doesn’t seem to have spurred a deeper dive into the issues that plagued Savage’s youth. Speaking about murdered loved ones or bringing a gun to middle school hasn’t provoked a sharp interest in curbing gun violence on Atlanta’s east side, but it has helped sell out shows. These are notches in the authenticity belt; they’re selling points.
The OGs of hip-hop claim realness as this lens for society to understand and alleviate the struggles of marginalized inner-city folk, but in reality it’s just another form of entertainment. People listen to 21 Savage and Tay-K for their authenticity in the same way they might listen to 2 Chainz for wonky one-liners. Realness is no longer a catalyst for change; it’s a brand rooted in shock value.
Say Cheese TV says the following to Tay-K in a recent phone interview from jail: “If you get out of jail, you have the potential to be the biggest North Texas rapper of all time. You know you got the potential to be that, right?”
On the other end, a shy laugh. “It’s a good feeling, bro, but I don’t know,” Tay-K says. “I’m in jail. If I do get out of jail, I know I’m done robbing, hitting licks, I’m not doing none of that.”
Tay-K wants a clean slate and remains confident he’ll beat the case, but his celebrity may forever be entangled with murder charges, shoddy courtroom images, and #FREETAYK hashtags. It’s his fault, but it’s also our fault. Reality rap has been “otherized” and commodified for decades. Suburban listeners crave the rush of a trap narrative the same way their predecessors went to see Scarface for the tenth time. It’s ear-candy documentary. As long as realness sells, street rappers will continue to push records with increasingly grisly, honest narratives.
There seems to be no satisfying solution to this dilemma, so here’s a compromise: listen to Tay-K, but treat him like a case study instead of a reality star. Recognize not only his flaws, but also his limitations. Learn about his environment. Restore the value of realness.