Robert Christgau called this Tennessee rap duo’s latest album his ‘favourite hip-hop album of the year’, although he qualified such high praise by arguing on Twitter that the year ‘should damn well be generating better ones’. I agree that it’s been a rather weak year for rap so far, especially since wasting time over the last few days trying to come to terms with thin releases from some of its major players (Big Boi’s Boomiverse, Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory, 2 Chainz’ Pretty Girls Like Trap Music). And though Step Brothers THREE isn’t likely to be my favourite hip-hop album of the year (the bottomless puzzlebox of DAMN. looms large), it’s a hell of a lot tighter than most.
Opening track ‘5X’ reaches a level of effervescence with its chanting female backers that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on last year’s best rap album, Coloring Book, and these ‘step brothers’ trade goofy rhymes with each other winningly. It’s a peak: no subsequent song comes close to matching it, although practically every song does have one or two choice lines and more than a few memorable earworms.
Here are some favourites of mine: the amusingly paranoid cheating saga ‘If My Girl Found Out’, a ‘Good Cop Bad Cop’ tale concerning opposing officers Craig and Bart (less simplistic than it sounds), a ‘13th Amendment Song’ doubtless inspired by Ava DuVernay’s excellent Netflix doc and driven by an on-point chain gang sample, a celebration of reaching 25 that’s powered by a muscular keyboard riff, and a sorta-touching rap ballad that insists they don’t deserve a ‘3rd 2nd Chance’ – that’s from any of their women.
Starlito is the Chuck D of the show, deeper voiced and vaguely menacing, whilst Don Trip is a spiritual Flavor Flav, higher pitched and hence more comically inclined. But together they are no match for Public Enemy – they aren’t as focused politically, as relentless musically, or as funny consistently. Still, they are their own beast, darting from topic to topic and mood to mood, sometimes within the same song, demonstrating themselves to be creatures of the information-overload 21st century – even as they bemoan some of the technology that defines our era: ‘They say we’re New Slaves, but really nothing’s changed/We’re just addicted to our cell phones and brand names’. How’s a brother to fight systemic racism if he’s glued to a screen?
I like these two rappers because of their acknowledgment that they’re not above everybody else, admitting at various points to their addiction to dope, women, gambling, hustling etc. They’re common muckers, trying to make a name for themselves and a little cash money on the side, and I wish them well, even as I wish they’d show the consistent respect for other people, especially their ‘bitches’, that they demand for themselves.