For over 20 years, Starlito has been rapping about how stressful it is to be a rapper. Years on the independent mixtape grind in his native Nashville put his slippery monotone within earshot of Cash Money in the mid-2000s, and the artist formerly known as All $tar used his growing platform to grapple with the increasingly high costs of fame. He can shit talk and flex with the best of them—he and Memphis rapper Don Trip’s Step Brothers series is a masterclass in affable and thoughtful bully rap—but he won’t pretend the strain of real life and the rap industry hasn’t put him on the verge of quitting altogether. Fearing his biggest hit, 2005’s oft-remixed “Grey Goose,” would box him into a corner as an alcohol rapper, he’s made sure to split time between partying and pain rap, channeling the tact and entrepreneurial savvy of a Young Dolph or Key Glock without the outsized persona.
On Love Drug, his first solo project since 2020’s Paternity Leave, his raps still cut to the bone, but his outlook has metastasized into something even darker. Starlito’s knack for standing firm in the middle of the storm gives every story lethal urgency, whether it’s about a shootout or just a dead phone battery. But this time, there’s no lighthearted hijinks to dilute the soul-crushingly heavy thoughts. Opener “Writer’s Block” bleeds from various losses—dead friends he should be sharing oysters with, love affairs barely remembered through the haze of a Xanax addiction. Even brief moments of respite (“I celebrate breakin’ even”) are immediately followed by more strife (“I ain’t say it was easy”). Throughout Love Drug, Starlito’s writing is all tension with just enough release to ensure he doesn’t explode.
That sorrow is the album’s lifeblood, the harrowing byproduct of systems that suck the profit and vitality out of the Black bodies not being set up to fail on street corners. On highlight “Put the Gun Down Craig,” a plot beat from the 1995 comedy classic Friday inspires intense reflections on the ripple effect of gun violence, from familial paranoia to snitch culture. “I hate we had to shoot guns, can’t lie; I don’t want no new smoke,” he says plainly, as producer DTdaKidd’s bass and drums pop like shots. Compare that to “iH8RAP,” the album’s only stumble, where good points about media literacy and false rapper personae are drowned out by preachy soapboxing and a guest appearance from YouTube shock jock Charleston White. Lito doesn’t need the help to make his messages any more powerful: “‘Feed your mind, starve your ego,’ I got that from Starlito/This part from Jermaine, align your heart with your brain.”
Otherwise, his blunt thoughtfulness continues to carry his rumbling voice far. He stands tall next to guests like Alabama’s bluesy bard NoCap (“Don’t Cry,” “Pocket Full of Pain”) and punches through the beats, whether a somber groove from producer ZIPS (“Wanna Be There”) or an earthshaker by Memphis heavy hitter Tay Keith (“Bipolar Bear”). Lito stays 10 toes through it all, outwardly unmoored but desperately trying to maintain from within. His quiet devastation comes to a head on closer “Retire My Jersey,” which mixes in autobiography and lessons from Gucci Mane and former labelmate Lil Wayne with the bloodletting. “In the airport, they call me the GOAT/When I’m in the mirror, feel like I’m seeing ghosts,” he says, flow harsh and direct as a mug of black coffee. Starlito may never outrun his demons, but he’s more than content to let the work speak for itself.