A decade into the East Nashville rapper’s latest incarnation, he delves into the dark corners of his mind on an album that’s dense, prickly, and full of jarring personal details.
There’s a New York Times item from the winter of 2008: “Waiting (and Waiting) for a Big Rap Moment.” The subject, a then 23-year-old rapper from East Nashville, went by the name All $tar, and he was in a sort of purgatory. He’d landed a regional hit with “Grey Goose,” which popped up across different mixtapes in various different remixed versions, featuring combinations of other Southern stars like Yo Gotti, Lil Wayne, and Young Jeezy. He was signed to Cash Money. But his debut album, Street Ball, was nowhere to be found; in the piece, the rapper chalked up the idea that the record might be a hit to “wishful thinking.” He was recording and releasing sprawling, self-flagellating mixtapes at an impressive clip, but when it came to an above-board, bankable career as a rap star, he was waiting (and waiting).
Street Ball never came out. Before long, All $tar, born Jermaine Shute, retreated into the underground and into his own head. He renamed himself Starlito. In the decade since the Times story, he’s put out more than two dozen releases without ever reaching the commercial heights a marquee spot on mid-aughts Cash Money seemed to offer. But in his defense, he’s rarely even tried for that sort of fame: Shute’s music under the Starlito name is dense and prickly, and it leans far away from pop. His three collaborations with fellow Tennessean Don Trip—a Memphis native who was also briefly crushed by the major-label wringer—as the Step Brothers made him a critical darling.
Those Step Brothers records have grim crime tales and sober screeds about American racism, but they’re buoyed by the levity (and joy) that Lito and Trip evidently feel when rapping together. Lito can be a very funny, very sarcastic writer, but on his solo work—there’s tons, nearly all of it worth at least a cursory listen—he often burrows as deep as possible into the dark corners of his mind. His writing is tinged by paranoia—founded fears, like cars parked out front of his house for hours on end or sordid, unglamorous affairs coming to light. His latest album, At WAR With Myself Too, is similarly unsparing.
WAR is nominally the sequel to a mixtape from 2011 and it is, predictably, contemplative and punishing in mostly equal measure. But there are telling contrasts: Today, Lito leans deeper into his voice, which can turn low and guttural to the point of vocal fry when he’s at at his most exhausted. The strongest vocal performance here is on a song called “Crying in the Car,” where Lito raps, as deliberately as if he were on a therapist’s couch, about starting to play basketball again to block out the weapons that cloud his mind’s eye, about quitting prescription drugs, about the pick-up game allowing him to sweat the alcohol out of his system. Where some confessional rap reads as manic or leaves the listener feeling like a voyeur, Lito has a unique ability to drop jarring personal details in a way that seems to reassure and calm his audience.
Yet Lito’s greatest gift as a writer is not his ability to reveal himself through confession, but to condense everything—confession, threat, fear, sneer—into short, clear, stylish couplets. From the album’s closer, “You Don’t Know the Half”: “I was trapped out with my phone jumping, then I cashed out, told ’em ‘Don’t front me’/I was searching for an early exit, tryna back out ’cause I know they’re coming.” The way he raps the first bar, his nerves seem still. Then he confides that he declined the re-up because he could sense the walls closing in. It’s a shoulder shrug that does a ton of heavy narrative lifting. Like the rest of Starlito’s catalog, At WAR With Myself Too is the sound of a man reckoning with the world and with his own worst impulses—and breaking even at the very least.
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