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  • Genre:


  • Label:

    Empire / Grind Hard

  • Reviewed:

    March 29, 2017

Without sacrificing any of the technical virtuosity, the pair of Tennesseans have made THREE their most personal collection to date. They turn street voyeurism and psychic panic into a triumph.

About forty minutes into Step Brothers THREE, on the somber “Just Want It All,” Don Trip raps: “All I know is the truth, and I pour it all in my lines/Looking for more of my kind, Lito was all I could find.” Lito, of course, is Starlito, Trip’s collaborator of six years and one of the only working rappers who can match him bar for bar, threat for threat. Their work together over three full-length records and some stray shots is an alchemic blend of technique and confession; each has pushed the other to write the best, most incisive material of his career. Without sacrificing any of the technical virtuosity, the pair of Tennesseans has made THREE their most personal collection to date.

Lito and Trip—from Nashville and Memphis, respectively—are rapper’s rappers, but they write as if they need to get out of the booth and attend to real life as soon as possible. (Later in the same verse from “Just Want It All,” Trip laments his sister’s jealousy over the car he bought his mother, makes sure his kitchen is fully stocked with pans, then takes friends fishing to keep them out of prison.) In the middle of “The 13th Amendment Song,” Starlito even sets a hard deadline: “Ain’t it ironic that they lock us up for playing with keys?/Save your receipts, ‘cause freedom ain’t free, and lawyers ain’t cheap/And I know—I got court on the 18th.” Whatever the opposite of escapism is, that’s Step Brothers THREE.

Both rappers were run through the industry ringer earlier in their careers, but they smartly avoid casting themselves as virtuous outsiders to a vacuous mainstream. Instead, they tunnel deep into their own worlds, their own psyches (Starlito, from “What I Gotta Do”: “I ain’t watch the news since they shot at me”). Instead of turning solipsistic, you get writers who reveal themselves through their interactions with others—Trip obsessing over his kids’ seatbelts, Lito weighing the risk-reward in lying to a woman who’s already lost her trust in him.

On a purely aesthetic level, Lito and Trip are uniquely well-suited for a duo. The former’s voice is lower, gruffer, where the latter brightens songs and gives them a buoyancy that they might otherwise be missing. The writing itself is almost telepathically in sync, but the vocal approaches give the impression that the step brothers are approaching the truth from opposite sides. (They’ve leveraged this to chilling effect in the past: “Caesar and Brutus,” from Step Brothers TWO, pits Lito and Trip as blood rivals.) On the closer “Untitled No Hook,” you’re left with the distinct feeling that each rapper gets something different out of the pursuit, which in turn makes a song like “3rd 2nd Chance” all the more affecting.

And yet, while each rapper is prone to introspection, and while listening to Step Brothers THREE frequently feels voyeuristic, the album opens with an exaltation. “Yeah 5X” is full of infidelity and deposition testimony and trunks stuffed with shrink-wrapped bricks. At one point, Trip raps, “My nigga beat a murder trial, to us that’s called triumph.” That’s what this record (and really, the whole collaboration) is: a triumph. Don Trip and Starlito’s music is bursting with the sort of low-level psychic panic that’s just below the surface in nearly everybody. They navigate that—and suspicious lovers, predatory record executives, would-be assailants, and so on—and come out the other side with vivid, virtuosic rap music. What could be more triumphant?