Drakeo The Ruler Is Home
Elections have consequences. Last week, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey lost her bid for reelection to George Gascón, a former LA cop who’s already been a police chief and a DA in San Francisco. In her two terms as DA, Lacey got a lot of criticism for a lot of things. She refused to prosecute police in shootings. She was reluctant to go after prominent people like Harvey Weinstein or Ed Buck, the billionaire who gave multiple lethal drug doses to sex workers in his house. She opposed legal changes that would allow people to get out of prison earlier. And she used anti-gang laws to send people away for longer. Lacey’s election loss is a repudiation of aggressive policing and status-quo maintenance, and her loss has already had ripple effects. For one thing, Drakeo The Ruler is home.
Drakeo, the 26-year-old rapper born Darrell Caldwell, has spent more than two years in jail, fighting a series of charges springing from a shooting at a 2016 party that left one person dead. Drakeo wasn’t the shooter, but prosecutors charged him with murder anyway, using his lyrics against him in court and claiming that his Stinc Team crew was really a gang. (They also prosecuted Drakeo’s brother and frequent collaborator Ralfy The Plug, who got out of jail a few months ago.) More than a year ago, a jury found Drakeo not guilty of murder, but the DA’s office kept Drakeo in jail, retrying him for gang-related charges stemming from the same shooting. Drakeo was held without bail, and he spent much of his time in solitary confinement.
Last week, the day after Lacey lost the election, prosecutors gave Drakeo a plea deal. He pleaded guilty to shooting from a vehicle with a gang enhancement, and he was sentenced to time served. That meant he got to leave jail right away. My colleague Jeff Weiss, who’s been tirelessly documenting Drakeo’s case, tweeted that Lacey’s election loss “played a major role” in the DA offering Drakeo a plea deal. A few days later, Drakeo released “Fights Don’t Matter,” his first song since getting out of jail — from where I’m sitting, the first artistic work that was only able to exist because of last week’s elections.
Writing this column really sucks sometimes. Last week, I wrote about King Von, a Chicago rap storyteller that I really liked. Less than two days later, Von was shot dead in an Atlanta shootout that also killed at least two other people. That was the second time that something like this happened in 2020. Earlier this year, Pop Smoke was also murdered immediately after I wrote about him. Over the years, I’ve written countless posts about rappers who were dead or in jail soon afterward. It’s enough to turn a motherfucker superstitious.
I’m not cursing anyone by writing this column — or, at least, I hope I’m not. But rap music is a reflection of the society that produces it. It comes out of poverty and squalor and violence — things that don’t disappear from your life once you get a couple million views on a YouTube video. Over the years, countless rappers have died too young — from shootings, from overdoses, and from the health problems that plague the most vulnerable people in our society. Rap music addresses this state of being. A lot of the time, it’s music coming from the people who are still living through all that.
Before their deaths, King Von and Pop Smoke faced charges for crimes ranging from car theft to murder. It’s not that they were just victims. King Von spent years in jail awaiting trial for murder and attempted murder; those charges were eventually dropped. Months before his death, he was arrested again for a robbery and a shooting. In lyrics and on social media, he constantly clowned dead rap rivals. Von lived what appears to be a violent life, but that doesn’t mean that he deserved to die.
I don’t know whether Drakeo The Ruler has lived a violent life. He talks a lot of shit on records, but so do most rappers. Keeping tabs on Drakeo’s various trials from afar, it definitely seems like police and prosecutors have been after this guy for a long time, like they have been going to unjust lengths to put him away. After finding his voice and establishing himself on the LA underground, Drakeo spent most of 2017 in jail on gun charges. He got out in November of that year. Then he got arrested on those murder charges in March. He missed the birth of his son in 2017, then came home for four months, then got locked up again — this time for years. But in those four months, he made a minor masterpiece.
Drakeo recorded his mixtape Cold Devil over 10 days at the end of 2017. It’s a beautiful swirl of muddy threats and impenetrable slang and soft-glint beats. Drakeo never sounds hurried. He raps in a sleepy murmur, as if he’s flitting in and out of a dream-state, getting viciously hard without ever raising his voice. He sounds like some impossible mutant fusion of E-40 and Roc Marciano, an American rap original. Cold Devil was exciting when I wrote about it in 2018, and it’s exciting now.
Things have changed since Cold Devil arrived. The album has proven hugely influential on the California rap underground, and a lot of the really good rap music coming out of the state might not sound the way it does without its influence. But Drakeo himself hasn’t been there to see that influence manifest. Neither has frequent collaborator 03 Greedo, who is now serving an extremely long drug sentence in Texas. And yet Drakeo remains sharp. “Fights Don’t Matter” is evidence of that. So is Thank You For Using GTL, the album that he released earlier this year. Drakeo recorded that one entirely over a jail phone, with constant automated-operator interruptions. The fact that he made it listenable at all is some kind of artistic triumph. Drakeo made vital art in between solitary-confinement stays. Imagine what he could do now.
In an interview earlier this year, Jeff Weiss asked Drakeo what he’d do when he got out of jail. Drakeo said that he’d get to work: “Get my son, throw on all the chains that I’ve bought since I’ve been here, and go to the studio. I’m going to be recording 12 songs a day. I hope [my engineer] Navin’s bitch ass is ready.” Art finds a way.
1. J.I.D – “Ballads” (Feat. Conway The Machine)
It feels good to hear Conway on something pretty. Conway and J.I.D are a great little odd-couple pairing, but they’ve got more in common than you might think at first glance. It’s right there in the lyrics. J.I.D: “I been hungry/ For a time, I was homeless/ I honed my skills, sharp sword swings, alone for the moment.” Conway: “I was deep in them trenches/ Homeless in Atlanta, sleeping on benches/ Now bitches see me in this Benz and it’s piquing their interest.” Both of them came up by being really good at rapping. That’s beautiful.
2. 42 Dugg – “Free Woo”
The combination of that guttural wub-wub bass and 42 Dugg’s high-pitched wheeze of a voice makes me feel like my head is about to explode. In a good way.
3. Sosamann – “Sauce & Season” (Feat. Sada Baby)
Please direct your attention to Sauce Walka, who is in this video swinging around a bo staff like he’s Donatello. Even without that, this would have a real berserker energy, but it’s nice to see visual confirmation of what you’re already feeling.
4. Vado – “Checkmate” (Feat. Jim Jones & Dave East)
Realistically, it’ll probably be at least a month before we get the first explicitly Queen’s Gambit-inspired Harlem rap song, but we can pretend that this one is the one. Or we can just marvel at the way these these New York veterans come alive on this one.
5. Foogiano – “Lightning” (Feat. Pooh Shiesty)
I like it when beats sound like someone holding down touchtone phone buttons, and I like it when rappers act like their diamonds are terrifying, so I’m an easy mark for this one.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO