It seems like these days in rap, there are three main types of artists working. There are the intensely independent artists that are fine with building buzz via internet hype and mixtapes, such as Jay Electronica or Alabama rappers G-Side. There are the major label big bodies like Rick Ross or Jay-Z. And there are also rappers that are hybrids of the two, the former major label signees that were dropped without ever releasing an album, like Freddie Gibbs and this guy, former Ca$h Money artist All $tar (aka Starlito) from Nashville. Between Gibbs and Lito, these two guys have been responsible for some of the hardest and most exciting rap to come out in the last 12 months. They’re hungry for respect, if their prolific output and intensity of rapping and lyrics are any indication. This usually means great music, and Starlito’s “street album” (it’s not really worthwhile to call this thing a mixtape) Renaissance Gangster is perhaps the best and most overlooked rap record put out this year so far.
Starlito is gifted with a bluesy, impossibly deep croak of a voice that is instantly compelling. Add to that his ability to craft lyrics that are alternately ridiculously clever, laugh out loud funny, and heartbreakingly personal, and you’ve got a compelling listen. He’s also insanely prolific, as stated above. In 2010 alone he’s released 4 excellent tapes: Renaissance Gangster, ISLY: Live From the Back of the Class, Tenn-A-Keyan 3.5, and Terminator Gold 60. While each features their own highlights and styles (particulary Tenn-A-Keyan 3.5, which consists of two 30+ minute tracks and was mixed by Lito himself in the style of an actual mixtape), Renaissance Gangster stands as the most solid and concise album from front to back, and the best entry point into one of the best rappers doing it right now. In the tradition of Illmatic, this album is remarkably short for a rap album being released in 2010: only 11 tracks long. It’s also remarkably coherent: other than buzzing ATL rapper Pill turning in an excellent verse on “Coastin Streetmix”, there are no guests on the album, and all the production is handled by Burn One. The production is actually as big a story here as the rapping, authentically Southern, full of wah-wah guitars, 808s, and “Triggerman” samples, with the exception of album highlight “What Was I Thinkin” a low-key but East-Coast styled beat that, according to Burn One, he made to challenge Starlito, an artist that is Southern through and through (and which he rides excellently).
Starlito’s rapping is truly top-notch though, exuding all the talent of a former major-label signee and the relentless grind of a mixtape rapper. There is not a better punchline rapper working right now, and there are few better rappers able to successfully express pain in the way he does. Tracks like the title track and “January Wrist 2.0” feature sports analogies so deep that only a hardcore ESPN enthusiast would understand (“I just flipped two birds, like Bud Adams”) while conversely tracks like “Tired of Being Tired” express a world-weariness which anyone that’s ever been in a hopelessly depressed place in their lives would find hitting almost too close to home. This is a guy who’s equally comfortable with just talking bullshit over a beat or crafting great concept songs like “Weed Smoker Music”, probably the greatest song ever written about being lost and intoxicated. Starlito’s recently expressed dismay at how overlooked this album has been, comparing it to his experience on Ca$h Money, and that’s been incredibly unfortunate. Do Lito, Burn One, and most of all yourself a favor and cop this album. You may very well be listening to the best rap album released in 2010.