Starlito Hot Chicken

[Grind Hard; 2017]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: music city usa, athens of the south, the buckle of the bible belt
Others: Kevin Gates, Don Trip, Young Dolph

Nashville is booming, I hear. Not that Starlito’s going anywhere — as far as I’m concerned, he’s achieved a statuesque permanence in the city’s landscape. The Mid-South is the last bastion of truly regional rap superstardom; perhaps its native sons feel the need to leave their mark upon the city, or perhaps the city leaves it mark upon them. As much as we pay lip service to rap’s supposed post-regionalism, there remain formidable, if archaic, barriers to nationwide stardom (how New York rap radio managed to outlive New York rap, I’ll never know).

There’s a lot of talk about gentrification on Hot Chicken, most directly in what could be the album’s mantra: “They’re trying to gentrify rap.” It’s true. The grand intersection of rap and pop has made a conversational awareness of the former something of a necessity, which is a great victory for critics and a great loss for artists. Those who achieve both critical and commercial success rarely find the former first; just as a deplorable chef might claim to have elevated, say, hot chicken, there’s a dangerous tendency to raise up rap specifically in the face of its perceived objectionability, projecting upon it a proprietary blend of 11 herbs and repentance narratives by which the visiting listener might render its themes acceptable. Consider Future, from whom we now wish to hear only a single type of song; consider XXXtentacion, who has proven so irredeemable by critical facelift that his enormous success is scarcely reported upon.

It’s not that Starlito’s music lacks compelling facets; rather, they are rarely so black-and-white as to make for convenient summarization. Starlito’s stories are truths inconvenient for the nouveau Nashville resident, but they’re never anchored exclusively in glamorization or poverty fetishism, the narrative binary of which today’s rap public favors the extremes. With regards to the latter especially, “the struggle” carries a certain cachet when centered in Compton or, once upon a time, Brooklyn that simply doesn’t carry over to Nashville. Why is it that only the largest cities may contain multitudes? Here, too, I suspect that the mythical Nashville of the Grand Ole Opry (the Detroit of vacant blocks, the Minneapolis of sub-zero temperatures) proves an easier compartmentalization than the mixed bag of reality.

That’s a tragic oversight. Good and bad, Nashville extends far beyond the world of that memorably poor episode of Master of None, a truth that Starlito seems intent on proving. The album’s plentiful features draw almost exclusively from the city, short on recognizable names but not on talent. The effect is reminiscent of Freddie Gibbs’s ESGN, easily the biggest platform ever given to Gary, Indiana’s rap underground. More than a favor, the choice gives Hot Chicken a sense of regional identity even stronger than its title; one might forget that Tennessee’s rap tradition is as strong as any state’s until the album’s procession of unmistakable accents begins, courtesy of guests with names to match (SixStreet Lil Mac, most notably; Starlito himself was once All $tar Cashville Prince). The Nashville sound is a potent blend of all that the South’s got to say, at times suggesting styles on loan from Houston, Louisiana, or South Florida without ever transgressing into imitation. One of the album’s highlights, “Draw Down,” is perhaps the highest-fidelity Memphis shake junt soundtrack ever recorded.

It’s difficult to describe Hot Chicken’s appeal without invoking “realness,” the genre’s most tired trope. Starlito’s realism operates wholly outside of the bounds of gritty dramatization. It’s an account that needs no embellishment, because it has no ambitions to an outside audience. Starlito might be the most talented rapper to become self-actualized before international fame; his work is much more about faithful representation than aspiration. If you’re reading this review, your listenership is likely a tertiary concern at best for Starlito — that’s a ringing endorsement, not a condemnation. Since a stint with Cash Money a decade ago, he’s operated entirely outside of the realm of pandering and marketability, a choice that lends credence to his claims of forgoing fame so long as he can get love from his city. Don’t let that stop you from listening, but don’t think that the music’s made for you, either.

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