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I rode around Houston with Paul Wall during Super Bowl week

It turns out that Paul Wall’s life is exactly what you want Paul Wall’s life to be.

Paul Wall makes the Houston hand symbol from the front seat of his car.

HOUSTON — Paul Wall is going to be late again. He calls to tell me this as I’m waiting for him outside a Starbucks off of I-10, one of Houston’s looping, overpass-laden highways. It’s about two hours after we were initially supposed to meet on Wednesday before the Super Bowl, because this morning Paul Wall’s friend unexpectedly got out of jail and he had to go pick him up.

“I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” Paul Wall says on the phone. “Houston traffic is so bad. I’m about 15 minutes away.”

About 30 minutes and a few apologetic texts later, Paul Wall walks up to me. I didn’t see him pull into the parking lot, but here is, wearing black jeans, a baggy T-shirt, and the most spectacular set of grillz I’ve ever seen — gold rimmed, diamond-encrusted mouth guards strapped to both his top and bottom teeth. His flat-brim hat says “HOU,” and his facial hair is limited exclusively to his chin.

He shakes my hand, apologizes again, and leads me to his black Cadillac that he’s parked in front of the dry cleaners next to the Starbucks. We get inside.

I’m hanging out with Paul Wall because hanging out with Paul Wall seems like the right thing to do when Houston hosts the Super Bowl. The rapper and Houston native is deeply rooted in the city’s music scene, custom car and jewelry worlds, and sports community. I should also tell you that I’m referring to Paul Wall in this article exclusively by his full name, because “Wall” doesn’t feel right and neither does “Paul.” But “Paul Wall” is poetry.

There are two cans of Red Bull (they’re orange and they look special, maybe, like, a limited-edition situation) in the cup holders of the car, which smells new and is clean. Paul Wall sends a few texts and then pulls out and into traffic, thanking me for being patient while he picked up his newly freed friend, who he says did two and a half years for being a felon in possession of a handgun (“yeah, sucks”).

We stop at a red light and I ask where we’re going. Paul Wall says we can go anywhere — he lives around here, near Houston Heights, and he has about an hour before he has to go get rims put on the Cadillac we’re riding around in. He just got it yesterday, adding it to the collection of six other Cadillacs he already owns.

“Oh, really? Rims?” I ask.

“Yeah, I’m putting swingers on the car,” Paul Wall says.

“Are you doing that today?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says.

“Can I come with?” I ask.

“Nah, not really,” Paul Wall shakes his head apologetically. “‘Cause I gotta go pick up somebody else and there’s not gonna be room. The rims gotta fit in the backseat.”

I ask what kind of rims he’s getting, even though I don’t know the difference between rims, nor do I know the names of any rims, so the answer won’t mean much. But it feels important.

“The elbows!” Paul Wall says, getting animated. “They’re called Texan wide wheels, you know, tippin on fo’ fo’s.”

Paul Wall laughs. He talks lyrically, almost with a deliberate rhythm, interspersing “mans” and “you knows” throughout his speech as though they were ad libs in a rap song. Speaking of rap songs, he starts to play some of his own using the fancy buttons on his steering wheel. All of the tracks are screwed and chopped. It sounds like molasses mixed with sidewalk grit. In a good way.

Driving through Houston’s gridded streets, passing strip mall after strip mall, with Paul Wall is surreal. In fact, it’s almost too good to be true. Because Paul Wall’s life is exactly what you want Paul Wall’s life to be: One in which a totally normal day entails literally living out the song “Throw some D’s.”

Houston is the perfect beat for his daily bars. The city mirrors Paul Wall, and Paul Wall mirrors the city — his drawl matches its sprawl, his car moves through the streets the way the slightly sticky heat comes through on breezes.

But for all the rap song things he does, Paul Wall is a family man now. He’s dedicated to his wife Crystal (who owns a fitness gym for women and is doing some sort of fitness performance downtown as we speak, although Paul Wall doesn’t totally know what that entails) and their two kids. He’ll go to the studio to record at night, and often spends his days with his family, tricking out cars, or at the jewelry shop he owns with his business partner Johnny Dang.

Paul Wall and Johnny Dang supply grillz to many of Houston’s athletes, including Arian Foster, Duane Brown and his wife Devon (or “Devvy Dev,” as Paul Wall calls her), and Andre Johnson. I ask if they’ve made J.J. Watt a grill, and Paul Wall says that they haven’t, but that Watt definitely needs one. They’ve also made Venus and Serena Williams grillz, and Shaq has a Paul Wall special, too. I ask if there’s anyone Paul Wall hasn’t made a grill for that he thinks needs one.

“I’m a huge baseball fan,” he says. “Roger Clemens. That’s my boy. We gotta get Roger a grill. Put the word out, man.”

As we’re stopped at another Houston stop light, which I’m convinced the city has more of per capita than any place else in America, a pickup truck pulls up beside us with a Weber grill in the truck bed.

Paul Wall is thrilled that the Super Bowl is in Houston this year because it brings attention to his city. But he’s not going.

“I’m trying to get some tickets, though,” he says, making a hard right turn off of a main drag onto a frontage road that tracks the highway beneath an overpass. “I’m trying to get ‘em to sell ‘em. Those tickets cost too much, man, if I get tickets I’m for sure selling those bad boys.”

“What if you performed for tickets?” I ask. “You should’ve told them you’d perform.”

“We tried, you know, they’re not trying to have us, though.” Paul Wall says. “They wanna do the Lady Gaga thing, that’s what they’re trying to have. It is what it is, you know. I understand it, but, I mean, I personally don’t know any football fans who are interested at all in Lady Gaga. They’re trying to expand the reach of who the fans are, man. But Beyoncé did the Super Bowl halftime a few times, so, here in Houston, I would expect or hope they’d have gotten Beyoncé!”

I nod vigorously as Paul Wall continues to suggest alternative halftime show performers for Super Bowl LI.

“You don’t know who’s going to be in the Super Bowl, but Atlanta, they got so many good artists,” he says. “Maybe Usher or somebody, I don’t know. There’s 50 artists it could’ve been from Atlanta. Man, the Migos, definitely the Migos, man. Then there’s people like 2 Chainz, T.I., Ludacris. He’s doing more acting, same with T.I. T.I. balances his music and acting out. He still comes with the music. Nonstop.”

I ask what Paul Wall thinks the difference between Houston and Atlanta rap is, and he tells me they used to be two very distinct sounds. But these days, the styles have blended.

“It’s dope to see that there’s a bridge,” he says. “And I appreciate that there’s an open door and an avenue for us to work with each other and support each other and all that.”

Paul Wall is very close with other Houston rappers — guys like Slim Thug, Bun B., Z-RO. I ask him how Chamillionaire is these days. His face lights up.

“Now that boy, there,” he says, “he invested in an app, and the app sold for 700 million dollars.”

“What was the app?” I ask. “Are you kidding me?”

“Nah, he won’t tell me!” Paul Wall pulls off the frontage road and out of traffic, onto a straightaway that cuts through a neighborhood. There are finally no stoplights and no other cars on the road. He picks up speed. We’re cooking. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so alive.

“No, I mean, I just can’t remember what the app was, man, it’s something, man.” Paul Wall says. “That boy, maaaaan! So I’m like, man, let your boy hold something. Let your boy hold something!”

I’m not sure Paul Wall knows what an app is, because a quick Google search shows that Chamillionaire joining Mark Suster's Upfront Ventures as entrepreneur-in-residence is likely what he’s referencing.

Another track starts playing and Paul Wall turns it up. The Cadillac has a great sound system, and he raises his voice a bit over the beat to tell me that this song features his wife, son, and 9-year-old daughter signing on the hook, and his daughter free-styling one of the verses. He can’t believe it; she hadn’t even been practicing. He beams with pride.

The song is an anti-bullying song. Paul Wall says that his healthy and intact family is a real role model for other people in the community, especially in Houston’s hip hop world. He says the song is about never giving up, staying motivated, and trying to inspire other people.

Paul Wall is a guy who cares. He cares about the people he loves and he cares deeply about his city, which he says is more diverse and more open than a lot of other places in the U.S.

“With Houston, the H stands for ‘hustle,’” he says. “There’s a billboard that says, ‘Houston, hustle, heart, and home.’ That encompasses Houston. You know, the love we have, that we show, but also the hustle we have, I think that comes from us being so far away from the rest of the media, kind of separate from everywhere else in the country.

“Dallas is more in line with mainstream America,” he continues, “But Houston’s farther down on the map where it’s a little different. I think it’s the slowness of our culture, how we move slow. It’s hot in here, you know. We got our own culture, our own slang, a little bit our own way of doing things.”

Paul Wall swerves to avoid getting into an accident and pulls back onto I-10. He starts to talk about how great the Super Bowl has been for the city’s visibility. But he’s wary of the attention, too.

“Social media has brought the whole world together, and that’s good in some ways and bad in others, because a lot of the individuality that we all had, everybody shares it now,” he says. “We’re all just one Instagram post away. And it is what it is, but a lot of the slang, what we do, what we talk about in our music — people didn’t understand because they couldn’t see what we were talking about. But now they can see what we’re talking about. So, it’s good and bad because now everyone else is talking about the same things we’re talking about.”

“Do you mean that it dilutes the culture a little?” I ask. We’re pulling into a gas station off the side of the highway. Paul Wall pulls up to one of the pumps.

“Yeah, it waters it down like a motherfucker,” Paul Wall says. “But you’ve gotta take the good with the bad — we want everyone to embrace our culture and not look down, but at the same time, we don’t want them to take our culture and make it their culture. So where’s the happy medium in all of that?”

Paul Wall shakes his head. I ask if we’re getting gas, even though we’re obviously getting gas.

“Yeah, I was gonna get gas,” he says. “This also might be a good place to drop you off, it’s not too far from downtown where you’re going.”

I agree, thank Paul Wall for his time, and shake his hand. He gives me a CD of one his mixtapes and asks if I need anything from the convenience store. I tell him I’m good, and he smiles — flashing his beautiful grillz one more time — before he makes his way across the hot pavement and disappears into the store. His car sits by the pump, its black paint reflecting the waning evening light. The wheels are rimless for now, but in a few hours, Paul Wall will make them shine.

Correction: A previous version of this article spelled the rapper Z-RO’s name as Zero. It’s not Zero. It’s Z-RO.