When Starlito and Don Trip recorded the original Step Brothers in 2011, it was done with few expectations. The record was released as a free mixtape. In contrast, the build-up to last week’s sequel, Step Brothers 2, included an exclusive, week-long stream on NPR. The album itself? Available for $9.99 purchase on iTunes. The contrast is revealing in regard to the level of unexpected acclaim that Step Brothers received, and the subsequent anticipation leveled onto its sequel. Step Brothers is, to date, the most acclaimed work Don Trip or Starlito has released in either of their illustrious careers. It’s the kind of record that can cripple a sequel under its own weight. But ‘Lito and Trip are two artists who, over the past couple of years, seem to have perfected the art of making follow-ups look effortless.
Step Brothers 2 delivers on all counts, because ultimately there’s no amount of pressure that can mess up a combination as good as Don Trip and Starlito. Few rappers today trade verses with the familiarity of the Tennessee duo. “Paper, Rock, Scissors,” the album’s opener, establishes this. Starlito and Don Trip spend four minutes building off of one another’s punchlines with an ease that’s truly captivating. The same can be said of “4x4 Relay,” a celebratory track that features some of the most impressive production on the record.
But where Starlito and Don Trip shine the most is in the delicate intersection between witty, drug yarns, confessional lyrics and raw emotion. Trip and ‘Lito tell stories of their daily triumphs, contrasted by confessions of their hyper-paranoia and constant uncertainty. On “Shut Up” Starito raps, “In case you needed a reminder, we on our grind cuz / Wouldn’t be surprised if my shoes was scuffed / Look at how I climbed up.” But later in the verse he admits, “Went and put cameras everywhere / Got tired of fucking the blinds up.” Eventually he’s almost pleading. “I’m trying to tell ya / I’m scared to talk on my cellular.”
“Shut Up” epitomizes the lyrical approach Don Trip and Starlito seem to have mastered on Step Brothers 2. Their basic formula takes the prolific nature of punchline rap and applies it to confessional gangsta tales. The result is an endless stream of clever and memorable lines about the realest topics. It’s a formula whose combination of pure wit and vulnerability is almost absurd, and ultimately makes Step Brothers 2 so enjoyable.
‘Lito and Trip’s basic approach to this album hints at a sense of desperation. It’s the kind of desperation that comes from past regrets and future fears. The hook on the second track, “28th Song,” finds the duo admitting to having sold dope before, “though they’re not saying you should.” It’s a recurring theme of “do the ends justify the means?” that echoes throughout the record.
It finally culminates on “Caesar and Brutus”, the closest thing to a traditional, gangster-rap concept piece that you’re going to find on Step Brothers 2. The song tackles the volatility of the game: women, friendships, betrayal and the lines between right and wrong. Even though Starlito raps on the epic’s opening lines, “Well, I know right from wrong, but can’t well tell friend from foe,” you quickly get the sense that he might not really have a grip on either. It’s a hypnotic song — one that bursts with emotion. Don Trip delivers the single best performance on the album, rapping with such conviction that it’s almost heart-wrenching to listen to. But it’s Starlito who brings home what might be the album’s thesis: “I just laugh. 'Cause everything I love is in the past. And everything I love don’t seem to last.” It’s a bitter laugh that says, “I think I won. But at what expense?”
That brilliant narrative twist is what makes Don Trip and Starlito the reigning kings of underdog rap. No one paints the fickleness of the game better than the two. On “Bunk Beds,” Starlito ends the song by rattling off a list of rappers currently behind bars, to the tune of “Free so and so!” The album’s ending, “Where Do We Go,” is an origin story that finds Don Trip and Starlito both relaying raw stories of where they came from. Listening to them retell their origins is a further reminder of how far they’ve come. And as the album’s finale, it’s the perfect way to drive home Step Brothers 2’s overreaching moral: Don’t take anything for granted.