When Starlito and Don Trip made the first Step Brothers mixtape in 2011, it was a welcome surprise. While not exactly the odd couple of Brennan and Dale, ‘Lito as a slow burning rap veteran and Trip as an emotive newcomer wasn’t a guaranteed combination. But both are from Tennessee and like the basis for most of my own friendships, they share a deep passion for music. Also, they can rap their asses off. The collaborative tape was an enjoyable impromptu affair, recorded during only three studio sessions and following a vague trajectory of the samples of the Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly movie of the same name.
Earlier this month, the two dropped a sequel to the mixtape, Step Brothers 2 on RPM MSC, this time premiering it on National Public Radio’s website and sold for $9.99 on iTunes. Gone are the movie quotes and much of the spontaneity of the first project. Now, the rappers find themselves in a hip-hop middle class where they used profits from their previous tour together to completely fund their new project without the dinosaurs at major labels. Sure, they’re still rapping for fun, but with both now 28 years old they’re also trying to make enough money to send their kids through college.
On “Paper, Rock, Scissors” and “Bunk Beds,” the two are at their most exciting: gun-toting shit talk hardened by struggle where the perspectives and chemistry are at the forefront. On the former however, it becomes clear that their honeymoon period has passed: ”Keep asking me like every day “what’s up with that Step Brothers?”/They either respect it or love it/Now we do it for the check of it.” Whether they expected the cult of attention when they first collaborated, there’s now expectations to either fulfill or avoid. Their third, fourth and fifth songs from the first tape are very different from “28th Song.”
Trip and ‘Lito can’t rely solely on chemistry to keep an entire album afloat, and here they’ve made fuller songs like the Yung Ladd-produced “Leash on Life” and “Caesar and Brutus.” The former has to do with school shootings and comes with an accompanying narrative-driven video and a yodeling Kevin Gates hook. The latter is about betrayal and characterizes both rappers’ distrust of others and hard-won independence. These songs are certainly much deeper than their previous ones, but there’s something lost in the premeditation. Starlito told Complex in an interview, ”The time before, we were just picking up on the good vibes we had working together. This time, it’s like okay we’re on to something, we need to do it right, we’re going to take our time.” Some of the magic dissipated after the original moment.
With the added depth, there’s a tendency to move away from the lucid gangster tales of Starlito’s solo output and toward the vivid hurt Don Trip does so well. They work best when Trip’s presence elevates ‘Lito and ‘Lito’s writing elevates Trip. They both get sucked into the concepts and choruses of “DNA” and “Open Your Eyes,” where the Tennesseans’ personas are almost completely overshadowed within the songs. They find the right balance on “4×4 Relay,” produced by Chizzy and Sarah J, which recalls the introspection of Starlito’s 2010 masterpiece Renaissance Gangster rather than the overbearing nature of Trip’s Human Torch mixtape series.
In between the cheesy hook of album closer, DJ Burn One-produced “Where Do We Go,” Starlito and Don Trip tell beautifully compelling origin stories. They’ve come a long way, from just Trip’s 2010 “Letter to My Son” and even more so from ‘Lito’s 2005 “Grey Goose.” It isn’t difficult to see why the two are spending time looking at the big picture; they’ve got kids to feed and they can’t do that with one check from Interscope, at least not for long. Don Trip has a line, “Still counting money ’cause that’s the best antidepressant.” Their path seems to be working for them and they’re more deserving of success than many. They’re currently in the middle of a 15-date tour of the Southern United States to adoring fans rapping back every word. But I can’t help but be nostalgic for the back-and-forth whimsicality, the beat-jacking “Karate in the Garage,” and the lack of expectations or sample restrictions. I hope Judd Apatow doesn’t make a sequel.