Even for an independent rapper with more projects under his belt than years he’s been alive, 2013 proved to be a period of unparalleled critical success for Starlito.  The Nashville emcee released two solo albums this year, Cold Turkey and Fried Turkey, the latter of which reached number one on Billboard’s “Heatseekers Albums” within a week of its debut.  In addition to making appearances on mainstream charts, the underground’s “neighborhood hope dealer,” turned the release of his sophomore LP into a philanthropic event—co-sponsoring the 100 Dreams Turkey Drive in his hometown and hand-delivering Thanksgiving poultry to the less fortunate. And while a surprising number of hip hop artists seemed to crumble beneath the omniscient gaze of Internet Age multiphrenia this year, Starlito just got smarter.  The proof is in the Fried Turkey.

Where Cold Turkey is concerned with the negation of negativity, Fried Turkey is a mélange of ideologies that fuses Afrofuturist elements with Surrealist ones and balances their obliqueness with the concreteity of trap narrative. What softens the sharp edges of Starlito’s straight-edge storytelling this time around is that he surrealizes many of his stories:  telling them through psychedelic lenses of kush, codeine, and insomnia.  Instead of a static speaker who remains ideologically unchanged for the duration of the album, Fried Turkey’s speaker “plays mas”:  shifting between identities at will and re-imagining poetic and sociopolitical modes of expression.  In her essay, “Afrofuturism and Post-Soul Possibility in Black Popular Music” Marlo David explains:  “Contemporary black artists now possess relative freedom to “play mas” with identity. To “’play mas’ affords… the mobility to shift personae in ways that counteract the limitations of identity imposed by the hegemonic gaze…” (697). Literally, “playing mas” refers to the wearing of costumes in Afro-Caribbean carnival tradition; but for a confessional rapper like Starlito, it’s all about employing multiple personae and complicating notions of authenticity by presenting facets of his true, complex self as separate static identities that, by the end of the album, converge.

The poetic persona in both “Eyes Closed” and “Keep the Change” is a quintessential hip hop sage who looks back to look forward, calling on deceased rap heroes for guidance.  In the former, the speaker declares:  “I don’t need to smoke no mo’ / can’t even open my eyes.” This “high state” places the song in a dream-like landscape governed by a surreality that enables the speaker to travel backwards through memory, where he recalls the untimely death of rapper Tupac Shakur.  Here, the speaker has the first of two dialogues with his fallen rap ancestor stating:

“Rest in peace, Uncle Pac / Still feel that your murder was tragic / I’m the nephew you never had / I’m you with a syrup habit / Still remember where I was in ‘96 when I heard what happened / My first cousin Karma born the same night:  / recurring patterns of thought return when her name get brought up / love her just like your music, / forever…”

The speaker uses this instance of what Michael Eric Dyson calls “the hip hop version of ancestor evocation” (eulogizing the deceased by calling his / her name on record) to fuse his own cosmology with Shakur’s, writing (or rapping) himself into a collective hip hop memory using his agency as black / poet / rapper to do so (228).  In a similar vein, “Keep the Change” could be subtitled “The Tupac Response” since it creates an intertextual dialogue with Shakur. Like “Eyes Closed,” it takes place in a surrealist state (the speaker is “sippin’ pink”); but instead of directly addressing the slain rapper, it begins with the opening line of Shakur’s “I Ain’t Mad At Cha” that says:  “Change…I guess change is good for any of us.”  But in “Keep the Change,” the speaker respectfully disagrees with Shakur’s assertion on the subject of “change” and responds with his own philosophy on the matter:  “I tell em’ keep the change.” In doing so, the speaker defies traditional rhetorical modes of rap elegy that insist exchanges with the dead be linear, non-culpatory, and parallel to the ideology of the deceased.

In “OG Skywalker,” the speaker is a sociopolitical futurist who re-imagines Old School street codes while simultaneously celebrating their value.  The result is a track that is as pastiche as it is revisionist.  The Colleagues produced period piece swells with the ostensible nostalgia of a bygone 90’s No Limit era characterized by hazy, psychedelic musical landscapes and lyrical reenactments of “thug catharsis” marked by endless smoke sessions and codeine consumption meant to temper the sting of everyday life in the ghetto.  But while the track is sonically reminiscent of said era, paying homage to an older generation of southern rap legends (using the word “OG” as a signifier of respect, for example), it is revisionist in the way its speaker synthesizes New School rap lexicon with Old School intertextual epithet.  The chorus reads:

“They say you are what you smoke / well that make me a OG…/ I got p’s of that master kush / Let’s just say I’m bout it bout it…”

“I’m bout it bout it,” references a 90’s Master P cut of the same name, while “master kush” is a New School term.  Traditionally, age is the determining factor in OG classification; but here, the speaker declares himself an OG on the basis of what he smokes.  And at the core of the hood body politic, what you smoke is a byproduct of “hustle”—the success of which depends on how well you employ OG attributes like wisdom and stealth.  In other words, despite his young age, the speaker’s hustle has earned him the right to a certain level of respect.  In addition to engaging in a long standing hip hop tradition—getting “lifted” and rapping the experience—the speaker is challenging traditional methods of OG induction that would prevent younger individuals from earning their “OG Degree,” and the respect that comes with it, based on age alone.  And by amalgamating linguae, the speaker effectively creates a “young OG lexicon”:  a combination of old and new.

The more trap oriented productions like “I’m Killin,’”“Still,” and “Don’t Forget the Bag” offer a concreteity that balances the abstraction of the album’s surrealist thread.  In these records, the speaker is engaged in physical activity—not just internal juggling.  He is an active member of the trap he flows about and is most concerned with capturing “trap truths” on wax.  Consequently, these records are Afrofuturist by nature. The speaker wants to create personal accounts of trap life that will survive into the future.  And instead of clichéd renderings of ghetto experience, the speaker asserts himself as part of a regionally specific “dope boy intelligentsia,” using local dialect to compose dramatic situation instead of popularized trap terms made passé through mainstream use.  For example, in “I’m Killin,’” the speaker explains that “Four racks” will buy “some daffodils.”  “Daffodils” (which, according to Lito, is a “pound of flowers”) is not a popularized trap term, but one that is regionally authentic.

“Like You Love Me” and “Can’t Get Over You” are the subjective love songs of the album.  Their speaker is more “man” than “rapper,” more metaphysical than surreal. The first portion of “The D.U.I Song(s)” is an objective love story that uses the (presumably) fictional romance of characters Cara and Daryl as “a metaphor for a crash course.”  And in the second portion of the track, in its final line, our speaker, who has shifted personae repeatedly throughout the album’s 14 tracks, reconverges, placing his multiple personae in one body by declaring:  “I’m a man first / rap just my occupation.”

Mainstream journalists fell in love with Starlito this year.  He appeared on Sway in the Morning and interviewed with Complex who also named him on its list of “13 Most Underrated Rappers Right Now.”  But Mr. Shute is not “underrated” as much as he is underestimated.  Though he’s become the undisputed southern underground “people’s champ,” he’s often snubbed by hip hop media proper because he’s militantly independent.  Because he’s not easily categorized by the one dimensional rap rubric used to “grade” mainstream artists too stuck on materialism to offer nuanced social commentary, too narcissistic to pay homage to the hip hop forefathers they relentlessly mimic.   The truth is, bubblegum-pop rap critics don’t expect to glean a lesson in Afrofuturism, Thug Surreality, and street semantics from a 29 year old low-down dirty south rapper.  And while they continue looking to mainstream for a New School zeitgeist, we, the underground, place our bets on Starlito.

Alex Ashford

Get Fried Turkey on iTunes:  https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/fried-turkey/id74000514

Fried Turkey back cover

References

David, Marlo.  “Afrofuturism and Post-Soul Possibility in Black Popular Music.”  African American Review 41:4 (Winter, 2007):  695-707.

Dyson, Michael E.  Holler if You Hear Me:  Searching for Tupac Shakur.  New York:  Basic Civitas, 2003.  Print.

Shute, Jermaine.  Fried Turkey.  2013.  Sound recording.