Hip hop as a Power Tool for Self Examination: An Interview with Starlito

At the beginning of “Nightmares,” the penultimate song on the second of Starlito’s three full-length mixtapes from 2012, the twenty-nine-year-old Nashville rapper distortedly intones, “The last three books I read were The Power of Habit, Hop on Pop, and Dream Psychology.” What follows is a claustrophobic detailing of Starlito’s nightmares—an overzealous PO, no “pot to piss in,” stuck on a label full of “extra middlemen”—atop a terrain well summarized by his recent reading list of pop science, Dr. Seuss, and Freud.

Starlito’s sound has come to be defined by his husky and lithe vocals, embrace of sample-driven soft-rock beats, and complex wordplay. He made a short-lived attempt at traditional commercial success in the middle part of the last decade (while on Cash Money Records, he made a cameo as Lil Wayne’s teammate in Birdman and Wayne’s basketball-based “Pop Bottles” video), and he has spent the past few years self-releasing music and charismatically mapping his psyche on record.

—Joshua Bauchner

THE BELIVER: On “Believe It or Not,” one of the songs featured in your twenty-two-minute music-video suite called For My Foes, you open by saying, “’80s baby approaching thirty / So OCD I might tell you the soap is dirty.” The video ends with you in the bathroom, water running over a pile of bars of soap in the sink: Irish Spring, Lever 2000, Dial.A lot of rap talks about stress, unhappiness, and even depression, but this is at once a pretty explicit and very mundane take on that trope. Why write a song about soap?

STARLITO: “Believe It or Not” is over the Frank Ocean track “We All Try,” and my whole verse was inspired from a line in the original: “I don’t believe my hands are cleanly / Can’t believe that you would let me touch your heart.” I don’t believe; I can’t believe: it’s two different forms of disbelief, which inspired an entire verse about my hands not being clean. I’ll be honest: I was, in a way, just following Frank Ocean’s lead. As I say at the end, “These bars is about soap, / I’m making this all up, / believe it or not.” I don’t think that song actually deals with my mental health issues as much as some of the other music, but in general it’s important to me to portray an honest experience in my music. I think that’s the best art, and the best hip-hop. So that’s part of it—just trying to give it to the listeners straight. Then there’s another part of it that is self-actualization—music as my sanctuary.

BLVR: It’s strange that you say, “I’m making this all up,” because the thing I really like about For My Foes, which runs throughout your music, is that the lyrics are concerned with everyday, regular-life, almost-boring shit—stuff that is distinctly not made-up. You go to the club in the morning to get paid, you buy soap, you drive around a lot and look for parking—very pedestrian, logistical details. All this is very different from your earlier stuff, which is simpler and more fun, like “Alphabet Soup,” in which you rap your way through the alphabet, A to Z, and then back. How did this maturation happen?

S: I used to make music by finding one thing and just rapping about it: the alphabet, a sports team, soap. That’s the nature of freestyling. You look at a picture and rap about it. With “Alphabet Soup,” I was in a hotel room in Miami, drunk, and I had already done the A-to-Z part. Without much thought, I wrote the alphabet out backward and then wrote a rap, crossing out each letter. But at a certain point this becomes cheesy: wake up every day and find a topic to turn into a rap song. Now I try to have it come more naturally, like with the soap. But the bigger lyrical change: it’s self-actualization—that this is my life. For all intents and purposes, my music is my life; it is my career and my livelihood. There is no separation between business and personal. Because my profession requires me to put thoughts together coherently for presentation, this merging of my personal and professional life has resulted in more of my inner thoughts and personality entering my music. And, of course, some of this isn’t fun and can be very dark—death, legal troubles, and so on.

BLVR: “Produced by Coop,” from the 2012 mixtape Mental WARfare, is about your ups and downs with your career— you rap about being on Cash Money and getting arrested, and how you didn’t even really know Lil Wayne. It’s sort of the old “success isn’t all it’s made out to be,” but really undercutting it; the attitude is that you were beating your haters to the punch.

S: That song was composed in order to catch you up to speed. Prior to Starlito’s Way 2, which came out in 2007, I was trying to make the hype stuff over and over. The first song I broke through with was a club song, “Grey Goose.” I had a record deal, and it seemed as if that was the only thing they would get behind. So I just tried and tried and tried, and I think I dulled down my own artistry. But one of the few things that survived this period and rose to the surface was the work I was doing with producers like Coop: more mellow, soft-rock-sampling stuff.

So that song, catching people up, it wasn’t just reinforcing the perception people had from the outside: that Cash Money shelved me and that’s bullshit, or something. I made mistakes along the way, and I can acknowledge those. Being straight-up with myself, accepting what was and moving on from it, that’s part of what got me to where I am now. It was the last track we recorded for that record, and it was important for me to hold up a mirror to myself to finish the project. A great deal of that CD was honest, and that was one of the first times that I was looking over myself fully.

As you may know, I quit rapping, right before @ War with Myself and Step Brothers, in 2011. I had grown so out of touch with what was going on professionally and otherwise; I felt so indifferent that I decided I would just rather not do it. I threw everything that was left over on my hard drive out there as @ War with Myself and said, “Until further notice.” But I had done a couple of songs with Don Trip earlier, and based on that we had decided to do a project together. It’s important to me to keep my word, so I was still committed to that project. But other than that, I was completely fine with quitting.

So we did Step Brothers, and the overwhelmingly positive reception it received was a large part what snapped me out of it. And I was back full speed ahead, though with my eyes open in a new way. Now I’m kind of at a crossroads between complacency and urgency, in that I won’t have this young energy about myself, this young spirit, forever. I think we all owe it to ourselves to try to grow wise. But that’s really hard, you know?

BLVR: You clearly thrive online—a twenty-two-minute music video, pay-what-you-will releases, big presences on Twitter and Instagram, and so on—but you also remain rooted in Nashville and Tennessee and turn out huge crowds for your live shows there. How do you balance the internet career, in which everyone wants new shit for free all the time, with boots-on-the-ground fan-base building, which actually pays the bills?

S: The internet stuff only goes so far; if people can’t see you, can’t touch you, they can’t gain a real appreciation for what you’ve got going on—if it’s real or not. That’s where a twenty-two-minute video comes from: it’s both trying to give you insight and showing you, OK, I’m not on television like the rest of your favorite rappers or the other guys of the moment, but I have a comparable product. Twenty-two minutes being the standard thirty-minute TV show minus the eight minutes of advertising. I’m not so stubborn to think being on a major label is what prevents other rappers from doing this, that being independent is what allows me or any rapper to kick it from a real place. Regardless of the business stuff, it’s about remaining a freethinker, a free spirit. It’s almost overwhelming to think that I haven’t had a song on the radio in three years; I haven’t been associated with a record label or any kind of entity other than my own LLC for the last two and a half years. And I made more money in 2011 than I ever had in a year rapping; and I made more money in 2012 than I did in 2011. At this point, it’s not just about the money. If it were, I would approach things differently. But even though I’m not doing it from a commercial standpoint, it’s still becoming more and more commercially viable.

BLVR: It seems that this actually points to a really productive tension for your music: between creating and selling a character commercially and tying yourself and your story to that character. And so much of this tension comes out as the stuff you do about the wrestler Ultimate Warrior.

S: Well, I don’t watch professional wrestling now at all. I used to watch it when I was a kid with my grandfather, and the Ultimate Warrior was my favorite wrestler because of his unpredictability. He was just fucking crazy; every match, every time he showed up, you knew he was going to do something crazy. And he just disappeared, which is a really weird thing for a kid to process: to have this guy you idolize in a way just disappear. There were a million rumors: he’s strung out on drugs; he’s dead. After @ War with Myself, that’s where I was in my career, at least locally. There was just so much extra stuff beyond the music that I thought I might disappear just like the Ultimate Warrior. So even this character bit is meant to give you some insight into my life. Though ultimately the wrestling stuff, and especially the whole Ultimate Warrior thing, is marketing. It creates commonality with listeners and draws in people searching for the Ultimate Warrior, who is a bit of a nutcase now. If you are looking for the Ultimate Warrior online, you’re probably a little offcenter; so when you find my shit, you’ll like it.

But there’s another side effect of the internet. Now you can find out everything about everyone in a matter of seconds—no matter where they are from or where you are. You get someone’s whole life story on first listen. I saw the video for the Trinidad James song “All Gold Everything” on WorldstarHipHop probably a few months before it was on the radio. And the first time I saw it, I liked it—there was just something charming about it. By the next time I heard the song, after googling him and whatnot, I knew where he worked, how many cousins he has, and a whole lot of shit I wouldn’t have known on second listen to a single ten years ago. So whatever an artist or rapper puts in their work, their music, that is in competition with all this other stuff; any myths you make artistically are measured against an avalanche of life data on the internet. As I’ve said, I prefer artists that I get a more personal vibe from. Which is why I try to put so much of myself, my story and my inner thoughts, in my music—I don’t want you to read my Wikipedia page that some idiot that doesn’t know anything about me typed up. I want you to hear it from me.


Megan Milks is the author of Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body (Feminist Press, 2021), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in transgender fiction, as well as Slug and Other Stories and Remember the Internet: Tori Amos Bootleg Webring.

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