By Chris Richards, Pop music critic for the Washington Post.
June 10, 2020 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
“This telephone call may be monitored or recorded.”
That brain-deadening phrase should sound familiar to anyone who’s ever been stuck on hold waiting to dispute the electric bill. But when those eight purgatorial words appear at the outset of Drakeo the Ruler’s new album, they foreshadow serious thrills. The album kicks off with a prerecorded message from GTL, a California telecom service that allows inmates at Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles to make prepaid phone calls to friends and family. “To accept this call,” says a disembodied voice, “press zero.”
Turns out, Drakeo has been recording the calls, too — and if you’re interested in hearing what the most flamboyant California rapper since Suga Free has to say about sitting in jail for a murder he’s already been acquitted of, feel free to eavesdrop. The rococo rhymes on this momentous new album, “Thank You for Using GTL,” were recorded entirely over the phone. It’s an extraordinary gesture, and it arrives at an extraordinary moment in American history, when millions are raising their voices against racist policing, from the streets of downtown L.A. to the barricades surrounding the White House.AD
Drakeo’s bogus journey through our broken criminal justice system began back in 2016 when gunshots rang out at a party in Carson, Calif. A fellow partygoer was killed, and Drakeo, born Darrell Caldwell, was arrested in January 2017. At trial, state prosecutors presented Drakeo’s lyrics and music videos as evidence, impugning his character and portraying his rap crew, the Stinc Team, as a gang — all while trying to link shell casings found at the crime scene with the guns seen in the music video for a song called “Chunky Monkey.”
The jury didn’t buy it. Drakeo was acquitted of murder and attempted murder charges in July 2019, but the jury was hung on charges of shooting from a motor vehicle and criminal gang conspiracy. The district attorney refiled those two charges in September. Awaiting a new trial as the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep through American prisons, Drakeo remains incarcerated to this day.
It all feels outrageous and absurd. Somehow, our justice system can turn a black musical group into a gang. Some way, it can present black art to a jury as criminal evidence. As Briana Younger wrote in the New Yorker last year, America’s rampant criminalization of blackness now extends to the black imagination. “Rap is the only fictional art form treated this way,” Andrea L. Dennis, co-author of the book “Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics and Guilt in America,” told Younger last year. “No other musical genre or no other art is used in the same way or to the same extent.”
What makes it so difficult for so many to grasp the idea of rap as fiction? Yes, this music speaks directly to our fraught American reality, but so do great novels, great films and plenty of other songs that don’t qualify as rap. We didn’t make Johnny Cash stand trial for shooting the man in Reno. We didn’t send James Gandolfini off to prison for Tony Soprano’s crimes. We seem to understand the difference between a person and a persona just fine — but not when the artist is black? That isn’t some cultural blind spot about rap music. It’s just racism.
On “Thank You for Using GTL,” Drakeo’s art feels intimate, imaginative and deeply resourceful. Sure, the digital phone connection flattens his lavish language into something uncharacteristically brittle, but thankfully Drakeo’s maestro producer, JoogSZN, is on the other end, ready to frame the rapper’s voice in crystalline beats that feel cool and spacious. After a minute or two, the music sounds less like talk radio and more like a secret being whispered in your ear.AD
As for the whispers themselves, they’re overloaded with the same ornate slang, needling insults and Freon-frigid boasting that made Drakeo’s 2017 album “Cold Devil” feel so plush and playful. “Don’t mind my potty-mouth,” he warns on “Keep It 100,” a new song that allows him to transpose his Ned Flanders-speak into strangely stylish tough-talk. He likes to deploy a similar tactic after completing a dizzying run of syllables, marveling at his own lyrical agility in square blurts: “Sheesh!” “Holy moly!”
He sounds like one of a kind, but Drakeo’s wild-styles descend from a California gangsta rap lineage that spans decades — from E-40’s prankish inventiveness to DJ Quik’s dry wit to Snoop Dogg’s sly sophistication to Suga Free’s brash extravagance. He’s also part of a global street-rap fantasia that dates back to 1988 when N.W.A. offered a world-changing blast of “street knowledge,” only to sanitize their own life story for the silver screen in the 2015 feature film “Straight Outta Compton.”L.A. gangsta rap’s proximity to Hollywood has always put this music in a blurry space between what’s real and what isn’t, but if you’ve really been listening, you know how to hear human truth in the space between the two.
Over the phone, Drakeo luxuriates in the slippage between the cold, hard facts of life and whatever passes for reality on our smaller screens. “To be honest, my life is TV,” he brags over a watery, muted synth melody that sounds like it’s pulsing at the bottom of a Beverly Hills swimming pool. “One million followers and none of ’em can’t help you/ Tell ’em to jump up out the screens,” he mutters, taunting rap rivals over a beat colder than the exosphere. “Social media can’t help you.”AD
For his grand finale, Drakeo evaporates the fourth wall altogether with “Fictional,” a disclaimer delivered in his signature smirk. “It might sound real but it’s fictional,” he scoffs on the hook, spelling out the difference between art and real life for anyone too dim, ignorant or hateful to discern for themselves. “I love that my imagination gets to you.”
Then, after phoning-in the performance of a lifetime, Drakeo pivots into a soliloquy. The drum machines vanish, the alter-ego dissolves and 26-year-old Darrell Caldwell speaks directly into the telephone, offering up his own best defense: “You’re not gonna hold Denzel Washington accountable for his role in ‘Training Day,’ so don’t do the same thing with my music. That’s all I’m saying.”
He’s obviously saying so much more, but if you still can’t hear it, at least hear this part.
Chris Richards has been The Washington Post’s pop music critic since 2009. Before joining The Post, he freelanced for various music publications.