Fat Trel has never been afraid to share, making true-to-life tales of gun violence, drug use and sexual escapades his stock in trade. Early Friday morning, his confessions showed a glimmer of maturity. "I'm on parole, so I can't pop molly," the D.C. rapper told the crowd at U Street Music Hall. "That's why I'm drinking all this liquor."
That "one step forward, two steps back" approach has marked not just Trel's life but his music career. During his concert, he acknowledged the "bumps in the road" – run-ins with police, beefs with other rappers – that have stalled his come-up. But after returning home following more than a year in prison, the 27-year-old Northeast D.C. native is looking to get back into the rap conversation.
That conversation has changed topics a few times during Trel's career. After breaking through in 2010, Trel quickly established himself as a swaggering street reporter with a very-D.C. twist on Atlanta trap rap. He found a patron in Wale, and signed a deal with Rick Ross's Maybach Music Group in 2013. But Trel's style – detail-heavy diatribes over brassy, bass-heavy beats – has fallen out of fashion in the ever-changing world of rap.
Take for example Trel's reliance on rapping over other people's beats, a technique popularized during Lil Wayne's mid-aughts mixtape heyday. On Friday, Trel kicked off his set with his remixes of Future's "Shhh . . ." and Wayne's "Wowzers," making the hits his own by amping up the sex, violence or both. These remixes allow Trel to show his personality and dark sense of humor – who else could turn Logic's suicide prevention smash "1-800-273-8255" into a murder anthem? – but there's a ceiling on their effectiveness. At a certain point, Trel needs his own hits.
Surrounded by about 20 hangers-on, photographers and a blase model or two, Trel performed modest hits like "My Bruvas" and "Rest in Peace," and songs that should have been bigger ones, like "She Fell in Love," despite a DJ with an itchy trigger finger trained on the gunshot button. "I shouldn't have given my DJ that Hennessey," Trel joked.
Even on a crowded stage and despite DJ screw-ups, Trel's charisma and dynamism told the audience who the star was, his chain bouncing on his chest when he got particularly fired up. But after a late start, Trel was told he had to end his set at 1:30. "We can do it one of two ways," he informed the crowd. "Never play here again, or I can do one more song and then take pix with y'all."
It looked like a sign of maturity when he took Option 2, performing that just-released Logic remix, only to reverse course and attempt to "break the stage" with the breakthrough single "Respect With the Tech" and his remix of Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow" before taking a Pied Piper tour of the club. Fat Trel has gotten this far by being himself, and he's not going to stop now.