“You need to quit bullshittin’ cold turkey and cool out.”
The central lyric of Cold Turkey’s opening track not only encapsulates one of the album’s central themes, but also serves as a good summation of Starlito’s career trajectory. Jermaine Shute began rapping under the moniker All Star, and recorded for Yo Gotti’s label Inevitable Entertainment. He gained a modest amount of attention for his single “Grey Goose” and signed a production deal with Cash Money/Universal. Birdman strung Star along for a few years without releasing his debut album. The rapper spoke out against the label on a mixtape, and was eventually released from his contract in 2010. He then began recording as Starlito on his own record label Grind Hard. For these reasons and others, it seems like the rapper has spent the majority of his career fleeing from the proverbial bullshit, both professionally and–if we’re to take his music at face value–personally. Shute seriously considered quitting music entirely in mid-2011, so when he complains that “he’s too real for this rap shit” on “Cold Turkey (Intro),” it resonates as an expression of a real, on-going concern, not just as an irreverent boast.
Since debating retirement, it feels like rap has become something different for Starlito: a form of therapy, or something he’s compelled to do in spite of himself. Album titles such as Mental Warfare and Post-Traumatic Stress strengthen this impression. While his recent music still appeals to a wide swath of rap fans, the MC seems to be less focused on attaining commercial success, and more on advancing his craft on his own terms. His content is more confessional than self-aggrandizing, full of paranoid thought patterns and existential dread. Musically, this subject matter is complemented by a looser, more unpredictable flow. Like Southern rap contemporary and major-label antagonist Gucci Mane, Starlito’s voice has become gruffer lately, and his cadences slower. This is not laziness; this mode of delivery allows his inventive aphorisms and punchlines breathe on the track. In his music, changes in technique mimic changes in content; his flow adapts to evoke whatever he’s discussing.
Cold Turkey, ‘Lito’s first major statement of this year, is on par with the excellent 2012 releases which codified this new style. On the album, he mixes Southern-fried, stoner-friendly midtempos with high-octane trap anthems, and tales of dealing, count-taking and high-riding with scathing self-examinations and misanthropic rants. Cold Turkey’s A-side is chock full of rapped hooks (“One Long Day,” “Dumb High,” “Sumn Serious” and the reflective “No Rear View”); no sung choruses are featured on the record proper (discounting bonus track “Long Haul”), which gives it a less soulful quality than Shute’s last full-length release: December’s elegiac Funerals and Court Dates.
Despite the counterexamples you’ll find on any of his tapes or albums, Starlito is sometimes slighted for not delivering strong enough hooks or singles, and is alternately lauded and marginalized for being a verse-to-verse rapper. It’s not that the hooks aren’t there, but that they appear in a guise that is atypical in relationship to the music of many of his Southern hip-hop contemporaries. On Cold Turkey, as on all of his tapes of the past two years, many of his choruses seem inextricable from the verses, or don’t markedly stand out from them. They are more a sequence of words to which ‘Lito-as-narrator returns throughout the given song, either as a self-affirming mantra or just as a thought he’s muttering to convince himself that it’s true; they rarely feel like anthemic refrains-for-the-sake-of-refrains that make the listener snap to attention. The fact that Starlito’s tapes do not always have immediate standout tracks works well with the brevity of his releases, encouraging one to listen to each full group of songs without skipping around, and repeatedly.
If this defense seems thin, note that some of the strongest and most memorable moments of the album are on the essentially hookless tracks, for instance “Fear and Love,” which opens with a two-minute-plus verse from ‘Lito. This serves as an excellent primer on Starlito’s strengths and contradictions, covering everything from his fear of death (“just tryin’ to see my 30-somethin’”), his residual bitterness about the state of his career (“Even when Trip and me get on the TV/these n****s can’t even see me”), to his hatred of having to heat up leftover Ruth’s Chris in the morning because his girlfriend won’t cook. The steak comment, of course, comes directly after some of the most vulnerable lines on the album (“You know it hurt when you just cry by yourself/Trying to dry my eyes and drive but that don’t help/I guess I broke my own heart”) and not long after a striking moment of self-hatred (“Told my bitch I wasn’t shit/And I wouldn’t change cause she didn’t believe me/’cause she didn’t leave me/but what if she gets even?”). Similar topical acrobatics take place on “Family Tithes” and “Ain’t for Everybody,” wherein the rapper largely eschews straight rapping for conversational rhymes with a loose relationship to the beat. These moments exemplify what makes Starlito’s music so distinctive.
Outside of Shute’s own efforts, Cold Turkey’s success is bolstered by first-rate features from close friends and likeminded collaborators. His choice to include one of the breakout Southern rap acts of last year, Baton Rouge’s Kevin Gates, was a wise one. ‘Lito even admires Gates enough to give him a track to himself (“Luca Brasi Speaks”). Rising Bricksquad star and fellow Tennesseean Young Dolph turns in strong, workman-like verses here as he has on their recent collaborations; he gives ‘Lito a less self-effacing voice to play off of on tracks that stick pretty closely to anecdotes on the money-drugs-women tip. Perhaps the most effective guest, though, is ‘Lito’s avowed kindred spirit and “Stepbrother” Don Trip, the only other rapper on the album who approaches ‘Lito’s level of introspection. Trip’s dour verse on “No Rear View” and his contribution to the hard-hitting “About a Bitch” (also featuring cathartic crooning from Gates) help make these two of the best cuts on the album.
If there’s any criticism to made of Cold Turkey, it’s that ‘Lito’s chosen production is serviceable, but not noteworthy. But then again, this seems largely irrelevant, and even logical. The rapper only needs a modest beat to make a memorable rap song. In fact, anything too hyperactive would nose into the space he needs to make shifts between laconic speech-raps and motoric double-time without them seeming forced. The fact that Shute hasn’t embraced the more adventurous tendencies of post-Luger trap that are currently prevalent in the South and, increasingly, almost everywhere else in the country seems compatible with the way he rhymes.
As an MC, Starlito cuts a figure that’s both realistic and mythic; he’s ever an appealing and universal anti-hero. He remains larger than life, without needing to invent a hyperbolic persona for himself. His shifts between braggadocio and insecurity never seem inconsistent. His tales of glory are modest and credible—he has no interest in coming off as one of the “n****s [who] say they getting money/but it looks like they sleep on the couch” he mocks in “Cold Turkey (Intro).” However, he always keeps his listener alluringly at arms’ length, not launching into autobiographies that deteriorate into self-pity or full-on confession. Every Starlito verse is more full of profound questions than one-liners that ring the same way each time around, and this is perhaps the main reason why listening to his music (and Cold Turkey, in this case) is worth the effort.