Mixtape Of The Week

Mixtape Of The Week: ST 2 Lettaz R.E.B.E.L.

Huntsville, Alabama’s G-Side were one of our great active rap groups — a hard-rapping throwback duo who pushed each other and came with their own hard-earned aesthetic. They cranked out dizzily great albums with astonishing frequency and had a surprisingly intense live show, but they never managed to break out of blog-rap anonymity the way so many other internet-rap phenoms have. When they announced their breakup a little while back, I was legitimately bummed and surprised, but I wasn’t quite shocked. When you’re still struggling at dead-end day jobs while you watch your peers sign seven-figure major-label deals, it can’t be easy to keep pushing. Not long after that breakup announcement, though, ST 2 Lettaz, the slightly more charismatic and distinctive rapper of the two, dropped the rock-solid R.E.B.E.L. solo EP, working once again with frequent G-Side producers Block Beattaz, and it’s almost like we got another straight-up G-Side record. I didn’t name it Mixtape Of The Week at the time, mostly because it’s been a crazy-busy few weeks on the mixtape landscape. But nearly a month later, R.E.B.E.L. has stayed in rotation for me, and it deserves its due.

R.E.B.E.L. is seven tracks and 25 minutes — not quite album-length, but close. And it’s got some of the strongest Block Beattaz production we’ve heard in recent memory. That team’s strength has always been in their ability to turn cheesy, emotionally manipulative circa-now pop into something resembling hard-ass ’90s-style country-rap. Candy-rave synths flutter and dip all around their tracks, but the bass still rumbles slow and heavy. And G-Side were always their greatest collaborators, partly because their hardheaded and workmanlike delivery helped to further anchor those beats and partly because they were always so transparently and fearlessly emo that they lent some serious force to those trancey sonics. Lately, internet wiseacres have been referring to doofs like Slaughterhouse as “struggle-rappers,” and the tag fits; there’s an turgid unsexiness to all those underdog striver anthems. Well, G-Side are maybe the greatest struggle-rap unit ever. Their songs were all about Sisyphean trials and the pure elation that comes with tiny victories. They were, after all, rapping euphorically about flying to Europe before they’d ever boarded a plane for the first time.

R.E.B.E.L. exists very much in the lineage of ST’s old group. It opens with a sample of Malcolm X talking about how Alabama is one of his favorite places because people there have to work harder to get over, and ST spends the next 20 minutes or so putting his head down and bulldozing his way through some breathlessly gorgeous tracks. The sample sources on R.E.B.E.L. are obvious, but they’re obvious in fun ways. Bone Thugs’ twisty speed-rap melodies pop up on “Trill 2 Da Bone,” but the track isn’t straight Bone Thugs homage the way that so many other mixtape tracks have been recently. Instead, Block Beattaz turn their voices into spectres, letting them flit around the track’s mournful piano line, always just out of reach. The hook of “Space Jam” subltly screws up the robot-voices from the Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic” to great effect. “Sunshine” effectively shows how Skrillex bass-wobbles can be translated into rap-anthem status. And near the end of “We Are The People,” the time-honored “Apache” break bubbles up from deep in the mix, barely showing up for long enough to be noticed. Those Block Beattaz tracks are dynamic things; they shift and evolve over the course of a song, rather than sitting still. There’s an instrumental version of R.E.B.E.L. out there, and it’s worth a listen just so you can better hear the way they layer and push all their different sounds.

And the EP also finds ST as ferocious and devoted to his everyman-rap style as ever. On “Trill 2 Da Bone,” he finishes up a track with this: “Might smile but it ain’t no fun and games / Run the watch, run the chain / Anything to stop these hunger pains / I turn the block into the motherfuckin’ Hunger Games.” That’s a silly punchline, bordering on corny, but ST delivers it with such fervor, and it comes after such serious desperation-talk, that he sells it as something dead-serious anyway. And that seriousness never abates on the EP. Even the closing all-Huntsville posse cut “Machine” is far from triumphant; it’s guys from one of rap’s most fertile scenes, still near-ignored by way too much of the world, still eloquently scheming on how to get over. In the weeks since R.E.B.E.L., it’s not like ST suddenly became a star; the EP has been even more ignored than so many G-Side albums. But there’s still a whole lot of power in it, and it gives me hope that the G-Side dream isn’t dead.

Download R.E.B.E.L. for free here.