Yo Gotti creates his best work yet by following the trap-rap formula
By now you should be familiar with Yo Gotti. The Memphis-bred MC has been on the cusp for nearly ten years, and despite suffering label setbacks—TVT folded, then his J Records contract was reluctantly absorbed by RCA—a handful of under-promoted studio albums, independent releases and his Cocaine Muzik mixtape series have kept him firmly in the thick of things. Earlier this year he inked a deal with Epic Records, and with the music industry shenanigans finally in the rear view, Gotti presents I Am, his most complete body of work yet.
One thing Gotti is renowned for is his trapper-to-rapper ethos. That’s a familiar story, but few artists deliver with as much conviction. “I am the struggle, I am the hustle/I am the city, I’m the pot in the kitchen,” he growls on the pulsing title track. Then he shows his vulnerable side on the apologetic “Pride to the Side.” And if you had any doubts about how he plans to go out, there’s the blatantly self-explanatory “Die a Real Nigga.” Again, not the most groundbreaking subject matter—surely you’ve heard it all before—but the marriage between the bottom-heavy beats and the true-to-life rhymes show that Gotti spent his years under the radar mastering his craft.
That’s a welcome surprise. Where he used to be all bluff and bluster, now he's polished and dexterous, like a point guard finally knowing when to break out the crossover dribble. Witness his tongue-twisting double-time flow on “Don’t Come Around,” and how equally comfortable he sounds on the R&B-tinged “Respect That You Earn.” But where you really hear that growth is on a song like “Cold Blood.” Over a groove lifted from 24-Carat Black’s psychedelic soul classic “Poverty’s Paradise” (a sample used in dozens of rap songs already, for whatever that’s worth), he raps with Donald Goines-like detail about the impoverished circumstances that give a man nothing to lose. With producer Canei Finch’s sweeping arrangement, and a guest verse from J. Cole, it’s probably the most chilling narrative you’ll hear on record this year.
If there’s one glaring downside to I Am, it’s that a handful of songs sound, well, a lot like other songs. From the flows to the production, “Act Right” mimicks Young Jeezy’s “R.I.P.,” and “Lebron James” apes Juicy J’s “Bandz A Make Her Dance.” There are others. One on the one hand you applaud Gotti for implementing a hit-making formula so effectively, and after all, songs sounding like other songs is not an uncommon thing. But on the other hand, why couldn't Gotti couldn’t come up with his own blueprint for smash records? Maybe after all these years he didn’t want to leave too much up to chance. Not sure we can be mad at that. —Paul Cantor