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EST Gee | El Toro 2 Album Review

It’s been a transitional year for EST Gee. Once known primarily as a fringe NFL linebacker prospect, his pivot to flex rapper made him an early winner for pandemic breakout music. 2020’s nearly flawless I Still Don’t Feel Nun propelled the Louisville rapper into Hip Hop’s limelight. He parlayed his quick success into a deal with Yo Gotti’s CMG, a record label renowned for making young, burgeoning southern artists boatloads of money — but also sanding down their raw sound.

Gotti’s goal seemingly is to take rough but bright talent and make the music palatable, a noble pursuit for generational wealth that can sadly end up taking the same inherent charm and eccentricity away from the young artists that originally made them popular. Casual fans have pointed out periods of stagnation for artists such as Glorilla and Moneybagg Yo, who’s new music feels like muted versions of their former selves, as prime examples of Gotti’s formulaic approach.

And unfortunately, EST Gee also fell into this trap; each of his five albums following I Still Don’t Feel Nun felt less inspired than the last. His most recent project, MAD, could’ve been made by any bedroom rapper familiar with Gee’s ethos, cadence, and access to major producers’ radio-ready sounds. The press run for Gee’s new album, EL TORO 2, included less talk about the music and more talk about porn stars and his forgone football career (an interview in which he walked out on.) More than ever, it felt like Gee was on his way to being reduced to a revenue-generating internet meme machine much like his labelmates.

And yet, with momentum seemingly stalled and the press turning on him, EL TORO 2 ends up being a return to form, if not a triumph. Gee’s tenth studio effort in just five years is an exercise in radio palatability without the sacrifice of his own sound; or Yo Gotti’s white whale. Throughout the project — with help from producers like Forever Rolling, Goose, and Tay Keith — Gee still raps meticulous, aggressive verses ripe with bravado and street wisdom, but leans more than ever into his melodic vocals he’s been teasing since signing to CMG. Except, this time, they work. For the first time it feels like the melodies on his projects aren’t there for the sole sake of radio play, but pleads and croaks from a forlorn soul searching for answers as he transitions into a new stage of adulthood and fame. 

EL TORO 2’s isolating beautyplays like a country rap album, the aesthetic Young Thug might have been going for on Beautiful Thugger Girls, in lyrical content if not in sound. The first half of the album is brazen, a lonesome cowboy dropping jewels, a seminar in genuineness and obtaining meaningful social currency. Around the halfway mark, the tone changes. Gee sings more than ever, and his impenetrable confidence descends into a heady concoction of scorn, regret, and loss of control. Gee still sees red, as he always has, but the profundity of this album comes with a dash of fear, explicating the illusion of control like a piercing shaft of light in an old, dusty saloon. On “More Blood,” he raps about the feeling of predetermined fate: “History been written for me, B.C., before Jesus was born.”

EST Gee has been candid about being a product of his environment, but has always seen himself as one-of-one, a singular figure that could bridge different regional rap pastiches together and single-handedly put Louisville Hip Hop on the map (sorry, Jack Harlow.) On EL TORO 2, Gee is still notably singular, pushed further towards society’s fringes than ever. He even gets the best Lil Baby verse in a minute on “I Think,” along with some of Tay Keith’s best production since he broke out from his Middle Tennessee State dorm room.

As his career progresses, it feels like Gee is learning how to marry his dark, grimy, bleak sound with textured, luxurious pop radio sensibilities, like if you took Swizz Beatz in 1997 and made him spend a year in residence with Young Thug in 2015. EL TORO 2 is more than a rebound project for EST Gee — it’s him finding his footing in his new calling as a label boss and a beacon for Louisville.

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