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Rap music can certainly be a depressing business, though rarely because it is a depressing business. To kick things off, many find it depressing… because its a business. A Big Business, in fact. A Big, fat, sweaty Business, with a Big, fat hairy chest, medallion nestling in a ravine of curly hair and chicken-bits, clutching a can of Pepsi that its face also features on. Then, too, there’s the tricky business: sexism, homophobia, violence and profanity – that’s a bit of a party pooper. Not that rappers think this, of course: on the contrary, all this stuff is regularly used to get the party started, even if said party is being held on your face, with the rapper’s fists featuring prominently on the guestlist (first 500 hollow-tip bullets get in free).
This painful end to your face and life is one especially wished and hoped for by rappers if you happen to be a “hater”: despite all that negative energy hanging in the air, being negative about it is guaranteed to draw negative attention. Because however nasty rappers can be towards their enemies, their enemies’ mothers and their enemies’ girlfriends (that’s roughly twice as nasty as they are towards their own girlfriends, if anybody’s counting), they are almost always relentlessly positive about one thing: themselves. Every rapper is the best rapper. Every rapper is the best lover. Every rapper is the best nuclear physicist.
There are many reasons for all this egotism and triumphalism – the artistic empowerment of downtrodden communities, the corrupting influence of consumer capitalism, the simple creative competitiveness that fires any truly vital art-form. Still – its certainly refreshing, in this high-five heavy climate of unshakeable egos and imperishable erections, to come across a rapper who is willing to admit to a little human weakness. Tennessee’s Starlito is an exceptional rapper in this as in many other respects, and Mental Warfare is an exceptionally honest and exceptionally melancholy mixtape, even if it is not an exceptionally good one.
Starlito (or Lito to his fans) has a voice built for singing the blues. It is a lethargic, drawling croak, similar to Lil Wayne’s guttural gargle but far less buoyant and joyful. It is a voice perpetually pained, downtrodden, defeated. He sounds hungover, still drunk from the night before, throat scarred by endless drinks and fags, in need of coffee and aspirin. On some tracks he almost whispers his lyrics, and even then you can still hear that wounded croak, rattling steadily away like a clapped-out engine. The sound of rainfall introduces Mental Warfare, and though the rainfall fades quickly, in a sense it never stops pissing it down from then on, as Starlito’s choked throat unleashes a torrential outpouring of misery.
Thankfully, Lito doesn’t just have a great voice: he also has a lot of things to say with it. A surplus of things, in fact, so that despite the often finely-honed poise of his lyrics it feels like his words are pouring forth irrepressibly. “Holding in pain gives you a headache”, Lito’s cousin tells him, and Mental Warfare at its most typical comes across as something like rap as therapy. Lito certainly sounds like he could use a few thousand sessions on the couch: “Went to the doctor for an appointment, she said I was crazy / Well, not really – depressed, prescribed me all sorts of medication / I read the side effects and decided that I’d never take ’em…”.
A wise move, perhaps, to reject a quick chemical fix – but actually antidepressants would merely compound the already extremely robust problems Lito has with weed, booze, syrup and practically anything else he can get his hands on or nostrils around. He knows he has a problem (“I’m trying to quit / Can’t explain it, it feel like when I lie to my bitch”) – but there’s a problem: the Mental Warfare going on in his head, and the physical and spiritual warfare going on in the world around him. “I think that I think too much” he says, but in a way it seems more like he sees too much. His constant references to suffering insomnia point both to actual insomnia and a more general feeling of being too awake to the world.
After all, thinking too much wouldn’t be so bad if all Lito was thinking was: “What a wonderful world!”. But is it a wonderful world, this world he lives in and describes? An uncle just coming out a coma, a cousin diagnosed with cancer, and – on ‘Northtriptyline’, possibly the most miserable track on this inordinately glum tape, a girl and her sister raped by their mother’s ex-boyfriend: “Momma wouldn’t believe her, til this day / It’s something that won’t allow her to look in her face”. Starlito’s tone here is compassionate, but also resigned – as if he can see the traps people fall into, but never expects them to stop doing it. And why would he? He’s trapped himself. Through Starlito’s eyes (as through his “step brother” Don Trip’s) the trap has never seemed more authentically trap-like.
On one of the chirpier track on Mental Warfare, Lito casually fires off a punchline: “So cold I’m Igloo-ish / I caught the arrow and threw it back at Cupid (No love!)” Fairly innocuous, you might think, but when you remember that he describes love as “the worst drug they got out right now” on ‘Northtriptyline’, and presents relationships as an unfortunate, “high-blowing” mutual-compulsion on ‘Substitute’, a line like that doesn’t suddenly seem quite so cheery. This is a good example of how Lito’s relentless downbeat honesty permeates even his more conventional material, and deepens it, just as his perpetual croak flavours and skews it.
There are many thugged-out tracks on Mental Warfare, but the crack-cooking, weed-smoking and gun-toting always exists in the shadow of, and as the product of, a harrowing environment: “I ain’t slept in ’bout a month, I think I might need therapy / I tote this big ol’ pistol ‘cos I think that no-one cares for me”. Can’t see Rick Ross, arch-deacon of the glamorisation of gangsta, saying something like that, can you? As Lito himself says “Call a man fake and that’s make believe” – his honesty is relentless, and his strenuously textured but conversational flow is the perfect vehicle for this honesty. Starlito is so honest, in fact, that he breaks what might be the biggest taboo left in rap, more shocking than a million murders and a billion back-alley blowjobs: he actually says “I hate myself”! If only Diddy could be so honest, eh?
Is it possible to listen to this stream of misery and feel contented? Well, perhaps. Mental Warfare is, after all, avowedly not aimed at people like me, and even less at people who are like me but actually happy, and there are doubtless many less fortunate people out there who relate all too directly to Starlito’s music and life, and will be therefore consistently moved by it. As Don Trip says “If you’re not from here it’s safe to say you’ll never comprehend”. Still, despite my admiration for Starlito, I can’t help but think that Mental Warfare is ultimately a dreary tape. And, as ever in music (and rap music especially), it isn’t morality that’s the problem: it’s the music.
The production on Mental Warfare is never bad but it’s rarely that good either. Many of the deeper tracks, emotional touch-notes for the project entire, are laced with slightly maudlin beats, with cheesy, weedy guitar and saxophone licks falling emotionally short of Lito’s pained delivery, sounding a bit cheap by comparison (‘Produced by Coop’ a notable exception). The best beats on the tape belong to two of its most aggressive tracks: ‘The Ville’ (produced by Fate Eastwood) and ‘Live From The Kitchen’ (Lil Keis). These are conventional beats, alright, as conventional as the sax’n’geetar stuff, but at least match Starlito for harshness, intensity and brutality. Perhaps what’s needed here is not more frowns turned upside-down – just more tables and chairs.