Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Trill Prince of Nashville: How Starlito Quietly Became One of the Most Interesting Stories in Independent Music

Posted By on Thu, Dec 19, 2013 at 4:24 PM

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Is 2013 the year Starlito broke into the public consciousness? That’s a tricky question, but the answer could be yes. In any case, what’s clear is this: 2013 was definitely his most successful year to date, and seems to have added the most important chapter to the already one-of-a-kind rap career of Nashville’s most notable rising hip-hop artist.

The artist formerly known as All Star Cashville Prince has been Nashville’s most notable hip-hop artist for some time now. He was signed to Cash Money Records in the mid-2000s and had a brush with the mainstream, releasing the single “Grey Goose” (feat. Young Jeezy and Yo Gotti) — a hit that seeped so deeply into the public consciousness that, at least for a time, it was more well known than Starlito himself.

Starlito began rapping in the early 2000s as All Star. Within a year of dropping his first mixtape, he had managed to parlay blossoming regional buzz into a deal with major label rap juggernaut Cash Money Records, a subsidiary of Universal. All Star Cashville Prince was signed to Cash Money throughout the mid-2000s, but despite the fact that his fan base only grew during his time there, he was unable to ever break into the mainstream or even truly capitalize on the resources available through a major label. Starlito experienced the kind of major-label stalemate that plagued many artists throughout the Aughts: stalled albums, stagnant promotion and a general lack of creative control. After several tumultuous years, he was finally able to fully sever ties with Cash Money and Universal, emerging in 2009 as an entirely different artist. All Star Cashville Prince had become Starlito.

Starlito steadily built a sizable international audience in the years following his mainstream independence, fueled by a new DIY ethos and commitment to doing everything on his own terms. By 2011, he had managed to turn his independent hustle into a sustainable venture. He was already one of the biggest regional acts around by then, but it was Step Brothers — his 2011 collaboration with Memphis' Don Trip — that launched both Starlito and Trip into a higher strata. It wouldn't be exactly accurate to say that Step Brothers is what made Starlito “blow up” — he was already an artist who’d been on the radar of many rap fans nationwide since as early as 2003. Rather, Step Brothers is what made 'Lito one of hip-hop's critical darlings and exposed him to serous hip-hop fans.

By our count, Starlito dropped five projects in 2013, all of which were released over a six-month period. Even so, it seems like his prolificacy has barely been able to match his current demand. The highly anticipated sequel with Don Trip, Step Brothers 2, premiered on NPR in October and made countless year-end lists. Fried Turkey, the Thanksgiving follow-up to July’s Cold Turkey, hit No. 1 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart. And the first single from Fried Turkey, “I’m Killin'” (watch the video below) racked up over six million views on WorldStarHipHop in just over 48 hours.

Throughout Starlito's assault over the back half of the year, he never seemed to tire. Not only did his material not wear thin, he only seems to have matured as an artist. The Starlito of Fried Turkey is an even better songwriter than the 'Lito of June’s Attention, Tithes and Taxes. Not only does has he not run short on ideas, Starlito seems to be entering 2014 at his creative peak.

It’s important to note a few external trends crucial to Starlito’s current career renaissance. Starlito may be a better artist than he was in 2005, but there’s no reason it should have taken him this long to achieve the mainstream recognition he finally seems to be receiving. Perhaps the most important element here has been timing. When Starlito left Cash Money/Universal Records, he was abandoning a sinking ship. Not Cash Money itself — who with Drake as their current marquee artist seems to be doing just fine — but rather the mainstream music industry at large. Over the past decade, we've of course seen creative control shift back toward the artist. The Internet's democratization of music sharing has catapulted DIY independent artists and self-starters into mainstream stars. When Starlito struck out on his own in 2009, he did so during an important paradigm shift in how we consume music.

It’s also important to note that over the last few years Southern hip hop has been co-opted by the mainstream, helping to lay the foundation of the current pop landscape. On one side, Southern trap music has diffused its influence so widely into pop culture that it put an indelible stamp on the EDM world. On the other side, the language and history of hip-hop have been revived more intentionally by blog-darling rap collectives like A$AP Mob and Raider Klan, whose reinterpretations of traditional Southern gangster rap has been fundamental to the independent youth movement that has sprung up in the past few years.

The image of the Southern independent rapper as the amateur/outsider who peddles mixtapes out the trunk of his car is a stigma that is at last dwindling. Until a few years ago, trap music was always something that existed largely for a niche audience. But Southern hip-hop is currently en vogue. A$AP Mob is from Harlem and other parts of New York, but their breakout star, A$AP Rocky, crafted his image on Houston’s and Memphis’s gangster rap mythologies. Even Chicago’s current drill scene, spearheaded by names like Chief Keef and King L is an even more aggressive off-shoot of the Southern rap sound. The Internet's democratization of independent music has largely eliminated biases toward regional music.

Despite the new heights he achieved in 2013, you still get the sense that Starlito might be one of independent music’s best kept secrets. He operates as a revered cult hero in some circles, a household name in others, and a completely unknown entity in some. But that’s quintessential Starlito. His story was one of the most captivating developments in local music this year — it’ll be interesting to see what adventures 2014 has in store for the trill prince of Nashville.

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