The automated cellular voice hits you like a battering ram. The gruesome reality sits in your stomach like bad food poisoning. West coast rap will never feel the same thanks to illegitimate circumstances. Darrell Caldwell-aka Drakeo the Ruler-is stuck in a never-ending cycle called “America’s Worst Nightmare,” where gladiator-style brick walls surround a rapper who carries one of the most singular voices into brutal soliary confinement amidst the worst pandemic in over a hundred years.
For those who haven’t been following, Drakeo is facing a possible 25 years or more in prison for criminal gang conspiracy and shooting from a motor vehicle. Much like N.W.A. in the 1980s, his lyrics are being used against him in court. About nine months prior to this, he was acquitted of all charges for a murder he did not commit. And now, law enforcement considers his rap posse The Stinc Team (consisting mainly of Mikell “Kellz” Buchanan, Ketchy the Great, and his brother Ralfy the Plug) a “gang.” What was supposed to be a trial for a murder has now turned into another attack against hip hop. To see the full details of this trial, read Jeff Weiss’ most recent in-depth article about it. He reportedly has another updated piece for the public coming out soon.
In the meantime, Drakeo’s stuck in this aforementioned nightmare. His trials are continuously delayed due to COVID, and the prison he’s kept in should’ve been destroyed years ago because of obscene health hazards. The present is grim for the Los Angeles artist, but his spirit never dies.
“This telephone call may be monitored or recorded” is the most gut-wrenching statement I’ve heard on an album this year. The basis for Drakeo’s newest collaborative project with longtime producer Joogszn-Thank You For Using GTL-has taken on a mythical quality over the past few months. Music staples like Pitchfork have already covered the legendary mixing from Joog. The Washington Post called it the most urgent album of 2020. Journalists across all blogs have touted it as one of the best all-around records from this year. These are all sentiments I can’t disagree with. In all honesty, there’s probably not much more I can say about its oral history.
The unique textures of the album are pretty apparent from the onset. Since Drakeo’s vault was dried up from March’s Free Drakeo (also one of my favorites this year), the only possible route for recording new music was through the California telecom service that predominantly functions as the symbolic barrier between Men’s Central Jail and freedom (outright racism being the main driver of this barrier). Despite “thank you for using GTL” being the common thread for each song’s finale, it’s Drakeo’s classic rhetoric that overpowers the majority of the album.
Joog essentially solidifies himself in rap’s crowded producer landscape, creating beats that sound cool, spacious, and somewhat eerie. They capture the current outlook perfectly. There’s enough territory for Drakeo to freestyle and shit-talk his way through 19 tracks, most of which follow his traditional pattern of Hollywood-esque character building and real-life scriptures. The mixing is phenomenal, sounding less like a telephone recording and more like a hypnotic assertion.
Whereas albums like I Am Mr. Mosely and Cold Devil felt like celebrations of a west coast rap renaissance filled with timeless lingo (“Flu Flamming” and ” Mr. Big Bank Buddha” come to mind for me), Thank You For Using GTL operates more as a stark reminder of our problematic judicial system. “It might sound real, but it’s fictional,” Drakeo raps in a creepily appeased tone on the closer “Fictional.” It sucks that he even has to make such a proclamation. Anyone who’s ever listened to gangsta rap understands that natural surroundings are simply used as a framing device for cinema-like orientation. Drakeo isn’t always the main character in his raps. He’s like Martin Scorcese exploiting the Mafia, or Damien Chazelle telling a fantastical story about two lovers chasing their dreams. There’s some personal influence buried in there, but it’s not always the main focus.
Much like in the case of a lot of fans and writers, Thank You hits multiple emotions for me. For one, it’s comforting to hear Drakeo “sheesh” and laugh his way through the bullshit. No matter what, his love of music will always overpower the blatant mishandling of this sinister case (“Damn, even though they doing’ me foul/Man this is why I started doing music,” he says on “Keep it 100”). In spite of the dilemma, Drakeo seems focused on maintaining his own whimsical path. In almost satirical fashion, he proclaims Barney’s in New York to be his only enemy on “R.I.P. Barney’s.” He calls most racist cops “Brads.” And on “Quit Rappin,” he proves that worldly obstacles could never halt his success or stout character arc (“I can’t even see my watch or the time on it/But am I supposed to? If I could, I wouldn’t be Mr. Mosley”).
Drakeo’s perpetual self-awareness contains wary undertones throughout. At times, this caution takes the form of “GTA VI” and “Social Media Can’t Help You”-two songs that only confirm Drakeo’s position as a wise forefather rather than an immature padawan. Life isn’t a game or a Twitter beef, and lyrics shouldn’t be taken to heart. Music after all-much like GTA-is an art form. People’s perspective can be used as a weapon, and not everyone is educated enough to understand the difference between real and fake (the L.A. County Sheriff clearly can’t find the discrepancy).
The only transparent reality that leaves a mark is the outdated precedent we live by. The idea that factual proof doesn’t matter in the long run. In this present day country, our judicial system is more likely to analyze lyrics over proper investigation. Until we see true reform, all we’re left with is an uneasy feeling. The kind that manifests itself in an automated vocal line inside Satan’s laboratory. The kind that leaves your stomach churning as Drakeo’s cadence echoes and stretches beyond confinement. Thank You For Using GTL unofficially captures America at its current moment. Divided and ominous, yet hopeful that things could change for the better. Yes, it’s urgent, but it’s also timely. Instead of becoming a hopeless statistic, Drakeo has made an unfiltered statement without the sacrifice of his image. Very few could’ve done what him and Joog have accomplished. Hopefully, very few will have too do it again.