Memphis rapper Yo Gotti has a lane and, for the most part, he’s stuck to it. His brand of southern-fried street hop has remained relatively unchanged over the past decade, with the only exceptions coming when the 32-year-old rapper has tried—and usually failed—to fit in with the rap du jour. “LeBron James,” a song off his newest album, I Am, is another instance of this, as its Lex Luger-inspired beat and repetitive hook fail to differentiate it from the excess of carbon-copy trap anthems that currently clog the radio. But, like with other Gotti projects, I Am shouldn’t be judged by its singles. Instead, it should be judge by its heart, which lies in the gritty-but-soulful sound that’s gotten Gotti to where he is today.
That sound can be heard right off the bat on the album’s opener and title track, which features Gotti declaring his greatness over 808 drums and a heavy soul sample. Maybe it’s the Memphis in him, but his raspy voice sounds its most sincere when it’s on top of crackling vinyl and sample-based beats. This type of production shows up again on the smooth “Pride To The Side,” which features Gotti lamenting about his loved ones over a warm choir line, and the J. Cole cameo, “Cold Blood,” which shows both MCs rhyming over wailing vocal stabs. But old soul records aren’t the only inspiration Gotti uses on I Am; it also has a number of records that draw from the southern trap scene and are built to crack the speakers of your Cutlass.
“Don’t Come Around,” for example, works on thudding synth notes and massive bass kicks. And on the Rich Homie Quan-assisted “I Know,” producer Trauma Tone pays homage to the Luniz’ classic “I Got 5 On It” by replicating its rattling bass line and string layers. Gotti uses these records to spit street stories of selling dope, making guap and living the high life. Occasionally, he’ll drop a personal insight into his feelings, but the emotional core of Gotti’s music has never derived from his lyrics. Instead, it stems from his croaky drawl, which adds layers of pain and angst to his songs. This angst can be heard throughout I Am, especially on songs like the menacing-sounding “ION Want It” and the frantic “Sorry.”
The times I Am doesn’t work is when Gotti reaches for mainstream relevancy, like on the aforementioned “LeBron James.” These efforts are made even worse when Gotti caters to worn-out fads, like on the auto-tune drenched “Die A Real Nigga” or on the cheesy “Respect That You Earn,” which features Ne-Yo and sounds like it was jacked straight from the early 2000s. It’s obvious that Gotti has a comfort zone; he doesn’t necessarily have the charisma or energy to jump on beats that aren’t tailored to his sound. As a result, when he does step out of his zone, his temperament—hood and Memphis to the core—feels out of place.
But luckily for Gotti fans, these moments of mediocrity are brief. On the majority of I Am, he stays rooted in the ideas and melodies that he’s been refining since he first dropped From Da Dope Game 2 Da Rap Game over 10 year ago. The self-proclaimed “King Of Memphis” has lived up to his title again, and perhaps this album will help him continue his reign for another 10 years.