For a rapper that was Cash Money-affiliated at one point (Starlito) and another who had a hit song with Cee-Lo that led to an Interscope deal (Don Trip), you’d think the pair's new project would be a bigger deal to more people than it is. In today’s music industry, the faster you blow, the quicker you pop and fizzle, so it’s a good thing that Lito and Trip are gaining loyal fans, not fickle ones. It’s a slower process but one that’s more rewarding for both artist and listener, as Step Brothers 2 unflinchingly delves into real life problems—friendship, poverty, abortion and depression—without pulling any punches. Thanks to that depth, the project is a steady grower, with multiple listens revealing it to be one of the year’s strongest rap releases.

There aren’t quite the same kind of sonic digressions from the main thrust of the album like the first Step Brothers had with “Life” (anchored by that ill Atlantic Starr sample), the cathartic “Hate You 2” with it’s dramatic piano and “Pray For Me.” The dominant trap sound of the first iteration made the album a little dull on the ears overall, and Step Brothers 2 starts with the same kind of beat on “Paper, Rock, Scissors," but Drumma Boy takes it down a dark alley by the very next song, setting the noir-ish tone for the rest of the project that thankfully zig-zags aesthetically while remaining grounded in brutally honest raps and razor sharp punchlines (most of the time). Yung Ladd drops a reflective beat for “Leash On Life” that he later mirrors with tense strings on “Caesar And Brutus." Ladd finishes his trio of contributions with “Something For Nothing”, which is the only filler song on a slim 13-song project. Young Chop provides an effectively slouching beat on “Ninja Focus”, and thank the heavens that DJ Burn One and Starlito reunite on the last song, “Where Do We Go”, where Starlito admits to depression but finds solace in simply surviving.

That struggle gives each track a sense of urgency, but the project is by no means a long list of complaints and grievances. "There are different struggles going on," Starlito recently explained in a XXL interview. "It’s not struggle rap for the sake of struggle rap, but its moreso like, 'Man, that’s somebody else going through something different than you.”'" That ability to empathize with others and paint vivid portraits of characters caught in crisis is what sets the two apart. At the same time, Starlito and Trip are experienced enough songwriters to know that the best way to deliver a message is to bring the listener in with something catchy.

A rapper like Young Dolph provides a contrast to Trip and Starlito by relying more on hooks and gritty street details than fleshed out stories and lyrical nuance. The stepbrothers prove their weight in the latter category with a noticeable increase in conceptual tracks this time around: “Caesar And Brutus” puts a love triangle twist on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the unapologetically fun “Pimp 3000” brilliantly repurposes lyrics by Pimp C and Andre 3000 and “DNA” finds Starlito recounting the story of a girl who steals his opportunity at fatherhood without even letting him know. “Leash on Life” makes the case for Kevin Gates to do every hook, and “4x4 Relay” samples Awolnation’s “Sail” to beautiful effect.

While the first Step Brothers was tipped a little too much towards slick wordplay and bottom-heavy beats, Step Brothers 2 finds an elegant balance between slaphappy lines and hard-hitting, full-fledged vignettes. It's a startling collection of songs that should make you open your eyes to the lives of two talented but troubled rappers. --Max Weinstein