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    December 9, 2013

Two years after their collaborative debut Step Brothers, Southern rappers Starlito and Don Trip present the for-retail sequel, a release that reveals two of the most honest writers in rap working together at maximum comfort and confidence.

The first sound on Step Brothers 2 is Starlito arguing good-naturedly with Don Trip over which one of them should go first. (The track is song is called "Paper Rock, Scissors," suggesting how they settled the issue.)  The two rappers—Starlito from Nashville, Don Trip from Memphis—enjoy a bond unusual among solo artists and particularly unique among rappers. (I recommend reading some interviews with the two of them if you need to feel good today.) The two met in 2010, when they were both were fairly recent castoffs from major labels; Don Trip had a cup of coffee on Interscope, while Starlito submitted his talents to the ruthless Cash Money grinder for years. Both of them were in the throes of building the kind of midlevel regional careers that ensures you'll always have fans but might never have money. They clicked.

The mixtape they made, 2011's Step Brothers, took its title from the then-three-year-old Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly vehicle. "[I was drawn to] the concept of the camaraderie between two strangers that were so quirky in their own regard that they wouldn't gel with anyone else," Starlito told The Fader. It was the most popular thing either of them had ever released; fair or not, they learned the world paid more attention to them together than to either of them alone.

Other rappers might have rushed out a sequel within six months, to strike while the iron is hot. But Lito and Trip are shrewd and deliberate, which means that Step Brothers 2 is out now, two years later, and unlike its predecessor, it's available for retail. They spent money on beats from Drumma Boy, Sonny Digital, and other in-demand producers, and honed their songs and concepts. What you don't get this time around: the bottled-lightning sound of two rappers falling in love with each other's ideas in real time. What you do get: Two of the most honest writers in rap working together at maximum comfort and confidence.

As with the first Step Brothers, Lito and Trip largely don't bother with hooks. "No chorus but it's goin' on like four minutes," Starlito says wryly on "Paper, Rock Scissors," and many of these songs just go on and on, in the best and most exciting sense, both rappers dreaming up vivid phrasing and rapping for audiences of one. "My ink pen drip icicles," Don Trip says on "Paper, Rock, Scissors". "Servin, servin like we never heard of cops/ Prefer to handle my business personally -you want this work or not?" raps Starlito on "28th Song". They elbow out the beats, blotting out the empty spaces, rap for 32 bars or more; they have too much to say, and it's exhilarating.

For the friendly-competition purposes of Step Brothers 3, I'll observe that Lito gets Trip on this one, just barely. Trip makes his way from point A to B by stringing sometimes-dumb puns together, as in "Life is sweet, but still sucks, like a Sno Cone" ("4x4 Relay"), while Lito raps in gorgeously accumulating run-on sentences, dotted with musical phrasings and internal rhymes. Following along with the long "O" sounds in a stretch of rhyme like "On the low I been unfocused, I'm just hoping no one notices/ Trying to play my cards right, but things got wild as the Joker is/ The things I love I kill for, call my bluff with no poker chips/ got this chip on my shoulder which/ Brings me to this lick I'm about to hit" (from "Caesar and Brutus") points you toward the subtlety of Lito's writing, which never halts the force of his rapping.

Starlito has had a quietly triumphant year; Step Brothers 2 is his third stellar full-length of 2013. His musing, wry style has gathered resonance as he's developed as an artist, and this year, every off-the-cuff thought he shared cut to the bone. On Funerals & Court Dates from last winter, he talked ruefully about not finishing college, simply because "shit's expensive." On Cold Turkey from this summer, he told us to call our grandmother to "see how her day went. "This advice come with experience, you ain't gotta take it," he shrugged.

It's this unforced honesty he shares with Don Trip, whose biggest song, "Letter To My Son", was a powerful lament about struggling to visit his child that lingered over details like court-appointed visitation rights. His adlib is a high-pitched, braying cackle, the sound of someone's soused uncle laughing at his own off-color joke; he's a good foil for the subdued Starlito, who can get lost in his own mind occasionally. Step Brothers 2 was financed by the tour that the two rappers booked themselves, without a team of promoters. Hopefully, it will inch the career of both rappers a little further up the ladder.They deserve a dedicated cult fanbase in every major American city.