Starlito’s Funerals and Court Dates easily cements him as one of the most prolific, socially conscious underground rappers of the South.
by Alex Ashford
Greek philosopher Heraclitus is most often credited for the statement “Geography is fate.” And though you may not hear the name “Heraclitus” mentioned in a rap song, Nashville, Tennessee, rapper Starlito’s latest project, Funerals and Court Dates, offers a more timely translation: “I’m just a product of my environment.”
Though the 28 year old rapper is dutifully included on my list of exceptional southern underground new-schoolers, Jermaine Eric Shute (Starlito’s “government name) is no hip hop newbie. Once signed to Cash Money through Memphis rapper Yo Gotti’s Inevitable Entertainment, Starlito worked alongside multiplatinum artist Lil’ Wayne before the latter became a hip hop heavyweight. Though the Cash Money deal seems to have been more of a predicament than a deal, Starlito refuses to make a big fuss over it, calling the situation “spilled milk” in a 2011 interview with Andrew Nosnitsky and explaining:
“I didn’t release an album, I didn’t shoot a video. I was featured on a couple of Cash Money releases – [Birdman & Lil Wayne’s] Like Father Like Son and one of those Birdman CDs [5* Stunna]. I turned in 80 or 90 songs. I did some writing for stuff that never came out … but, you know, it was a launching pad and a learning experience for me.”
It is precisely this determined, cool, almost nonchalant militance that marks everything Starlito touches. With a discography that includes upwards of thirty independent mixtapes (Yes, thirty), the suave, charismatic Tenn-a-keyan with rapper- next- door charm is a poster boy for independent hip hop artist success. He has single-handedly amassed more than 80,000 twitter followers and built an impressive rap empire complete with a clothing line (Grind Hard Apparel), a musical ( For My Foes), and a scholarship for graduating high school seniors. Creatively, he’s a master of the poetic line, gliding through double entendres with unusual ease and fitting polysyllabic words into monosyllabic spaces like a scrabble genius. Critically, he is subversive and socially cognizant—taking the “street code” hip hop scholars obsess over in academic essays and re-writing its tenets. For example, in the song “GH” (from Renaissance Gangsta) he proclaims: “God come first, family come second, money come third…”
Indeed, Starlito’s sometimes comical parodies of societal ills and subversive re-renderings of “street codes” are often misunderstood by critics as glorifications or endorsements. In Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip Hop, Michael Eric Dyson argues that “many critics don’t account for the complex ways that some artists in hip hop play with stereotypes to either subvert them or reverse them,” (xvii). Despite the criticism, the former street-baller turned MC continues marching to the beat of his own drum; and it is, perhaps, for this very reason he has managed to accomplish what many mainstream rappers (and formal poets, for that matter) fail to accomplish in their entire careers— to balance, in one project, the satirical with the deeply confessional, the nihilistic with the socially conscious.
The cover of Funerals and Court Dates is a collage of infamous murder cases that includes images of OJ Simpson, George Zimmerman, and Trayvon Martin. It’s obvious that Starlito wants to make a point about justice—or the lack thereof. One of the overarching themes of the project is a line repeated throughout the mixtape: “We ain’t got shit to look forward to.” The cover, then, is a hodgepodge of prison, death, and injustice—narratives commonplace in the lives of the disadvantaged—those who occupy the precarious socioeconomic space between a ghetto that threatens to “eat them alive” via drugs, guns, and violence, and a dominant society that suppresses their efforts at social mobility through poverty, racism, and lack of opportunity. Songs like the first track “Fi’e That Dope Up” and, the second, “Coke Can Music” have already been accused of being anarchic and existential for weaving tales of money (“I remember I counted my first $50,000…”), misogyny (“Got a bitch that gotta bitch and they both on a half-a-molly…”), Mack-11’s, and bails of marijuana in hotel bathtubs.
The common argument against Nihilist music is that it glorifies the behaviors it describes. This, however, is not always true. In most disadvantaged communities, nihilism is a reality dictated by unfair social and economic conditions. In the early 90’s, for instance, West Coast rap took a nihilistic turn after the intense psychosocial trauma resulting from the L.A. Riots and the racism, death, and destruction the riots came to represent. After the ordeal, the boys out in Compton and Long Beach just wanted to make love, smoke weed, pump the hydraulics…and rap about it. Artists like Ice Cube and Snoop Lion (nee Dog), did just that, recording songs like “Today Was a Good Day” and “Gin and Juice.” It makes sense, then, that after Starlito’s early 2012 mixtape, Mental Warfare, with its dedication to Trayvon Martin (via “The Struggle”), he would release Post Traumatic Stress, perhaps the most nihilist of his projects, as a response to the traumas of Mental Warfare. Funerals and Court Dates proves to be little of both (nihilist and socially conscious), and the most balanced of Starlito’s projects to date.
Part of what sets Mr. Shute apart from most other new school southern hip hop artists is that he is surprisingly traditional where it counts, staying loyal to the tried and true muses of Love and War. As any southern boy with “good home training” would, he still heeds his grandmother’s music business advice:
“If you wanna make it in music, you need to be rappin’ about love…” (2009. OnDeckTv).
In virtually every poetry class I’ve taken since my undergraduate days at Pepperdine, I have been given the same advice: “Love is cliché. Don’t write about it.” But it’s just like Starlito to do exactly what poetry big wigs advise poets not to do. Though the theme is less obvious in Funerals and Court Dates than in, say, the “What’s Love Got to Do with it?” series (composed of three mixtapes: I Love You, Too; I Love You Too Much: The Necessary Evils; and I Still Love You ), it is present in more implicit ways. “Lost,” for example, is a sort of hip hop eulogy to a fallen comrade that manages to combine the deeply confessional with elements of nihilism. The song reads:
“We used to hit the lab and rap for hours. / Now I’m givin’ his mama and daddy flowers. / My only thoughts is gettin’ at them cowards. / Killed my lil’ nigga and probably braggin’ bout it. / Retribution…do you got a better solution? /They taught us to tote guns, / really they bred us to shoot.”
Here, Starlito casts himself as the proverbial brooding black male who manages to survive a geography in which his peers succumb to gun violence. He then asks a non-rhetorical question: Retribution: do you got a better solution?
In her essay on nihilism in rap music, Charis Kubrin writes of poor, black communities: “Ironically, the communities most in need of police protection are also those in which many residents view the police with the most ambivalence. This attitude stems, in part, from the recognition that color counts as a mark of suspicion used as a predicate for action” (438). In the final few lines of “Lost,” the speaker believes he and his comrades have been “taught to tote guns” and “bred to shoot.” In other words, the lack of protection offered by dominant society’s justice system has taught the speaker he must protect himself by himself–not just from common enemies, but from police and government officials. Racism is a reality easily evidenced by court cases, like that of George Zimmerman, in which the murder of a black male is un-avenged and unpunished by the “powers that be” because his killer is a member of a higher social rung. Starlito responds to these dire conditions with nihilism and proclaims in the last few lines of “Lost”: “All I got is my weed and my music. But this is called ‘keepin’ it movin’.” Thus, nihilism becomes a means of psychological survival. Starlito is not glorifying his actions here. He is simply a poet—a vessel. Weed and music are his modes of survival. His music, specifically, is a symbol of what Claude Levi-Strauss called bricolage: using fragments to create a whole: making something out of nothing.
Besides strategically written hood narratives, Funerals and Court Dates also boasts songs like “Golden Girls and Grahams,” with its pop culture reference to The Golden Girls and “Money Cacti” in which the rapper offers a scathing criticism of the Reality TV Industry saying: “Feel this pain / Feel this truth. / Reality shows really killin’ all the youth.”
If you’re wondering where the “love” is in all this, it can be found embedded among the undergirdings of the mixtape’s eleven tracks in which Starlito eulogizes his dead homeboys, yells “Free Red Dot!” and preaches about the ills of society on behalf of those whose stories may otherwise never be heard. In between all that, he asks the haters “What’s wrong with you?” (via a track of the same name) and has, what sounds to me, like a shitload of fun. The mixtape is, ultimately, an act of love composed by a rapper who remains independent because of a seemingly insatiable desire to keep his art pure. Starlito belongs to a canon of artists who still create art for art’s sake. The problem critics may always have with the rapper, however, has little to do with questions of authenticity and everything to do with his lyrical heterogeneity. He defies categorization, writing rhymes that are nihilist and witty; socially aware and sometimes misogynist. The strength of Funerals and Court Dates lies in its remarkable honesty and the cleverly coy militance shrouded within the rapper’s soulful southern drawl.
Over and over, I’ve read reviews that call Starlito one of the most “slept on” southern rappers–as if paying him a compliment. I was in the hood a few months ago and a group of my peers, real life “dope boys,” hollered at me to “turn dat up” when Starlito’s “Chill” began to play; and if the hood is the true litmus test to an underground rapper’s notoriety, Mr. Shute passes the test with flying colors. Where I’m from, you’re only as good as the rapper you play when you drive through the projects. I play Starlito every time.
Download Funerals and Court Dates here: http://www.livemixtapes.com/mixtapes/20137/starlito-funerals-court-dates.html
Dyson, Michael Eric. Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip Hop. New York: Basic Civitas, 2007. Print.
Kubrin, Charis E. “’I See Death Around the Corner’: Nihilism in Rap Music.” Sociological Perspectives 48.4 (Winter 2005): 433-459.
Shute, Jermaine E. Funerals and Court Dates. 2012. Sound recording.
Nosnitsky, Andrew. “Q&A: Starlito’s New War.” 2011. Interview. http://www.mtvhive.com/2011/05/18/interview-starlitos-new-war/
OnDeckTV. “All Star—OnDeck TV Part One.” 2009. Film