Drakeo the Ruler’s Thank You for Using GTL was recorded through a jail phone, and it’s hard to think of another album in recorded history where the medium is so thoroughly the message. The tinny quality of Drakeo’s voice means GTL doesn’t have the social-music potential of 2017’s Cold Devil, one of the best West Coast rap full-lengths in a decade full of great ones. But as a statement about the carceral state, capitalism, the prison-industrial complex, the U.S. criminal justice system’s targeting of rap and rappers, and the ongoing game of real vs. fiction taking place within hip hop itself, it’s unimpeachable.

The details of Drakeo’s case are convoluted, and Jeff Weiss’s fiery, righteous reporting can explain it a lot better than this review. Succinctly: Drakeo already beat a murder charge, he’s still in custody without bail on criminal conspiracy charges, and he’s almost certainly innocent. With no other means of making music, Drakeo recorded 50-plus minutes of verses using phone service from GTL, which controls half the market for correctional-facility phone lines. In addition to the great rap music contained on it, GTL should serve as an educational document for anyone who’s never had to call someone in (or from) jail. And an introductory skit both establishes the obscene rates the company is allowed to charge and introduces the dystopian parodies of producer tags we hear throughout: “This call is being recorded.” “Thank you for using GTL.

Drakeo’s lyrics have been used against him for the duration of the case, which makes the act of making a gangsta rap from jail even more heroic. He uses the phone to assert his innocence (“I love how my imagination gets to you,” he sneers on “Fictional”) while rapping about gangsta shit he’s clearly not doing. This music deconstructs rap kayfabe while adding an extra layer. “Free Drakeo, he didn’t do nothing wrong,” Drakeo mutters throughout, before chortling as though he did. Thoughts come to mind of Fela Kuti writing “Expensive Shit” to thumb his nose at the Nigerian cops who tried and failed to plant drugs on him and lock him up for good. But, as we hear from a sampled Riley Freeman in one of the album’s many soundbites, “this is America.

This is clearly a rapper at the top of his game. His tics are intact: his droll, slangy approach to the English language; his contemptuous way of explaining the songs as the beat fades out; his stinging, snooty insults. His raps have grown richer and more poetic as they’ve gestated. “A million followers and none of them can help you,” he deadpans on “Social Media Can’t Help You.” “Tell ‘em jump out the screen.” The fidelity of his voice is jarring at first, but because this is really an album for listening to rather than throwing on at parties or on between other songs on playlists, it’s easy to get used to. Much of the credit goes to producer JoogSZN, whose stripped-down beats are the perfect pedestal for Drakeo’s scratchy vocal takes—and no doubt came through more clearly over the phone line than a denser or more expensive beat would have.

Thank You For Using GTL is a testament to the irrepressible power of art. Drakeo can’t afford to care how his verses sound on this album. This is his only way to make music, and he’ll be damned if he’s not going to use it, even if he’s benefitting his captors thanks to the cut of the money GTL gives the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. (“If [GTL] going to get money off of me and letting me know my call is recorded, I might as well record a song,” he told Complex.) There’s a chance you’ll come out of this listening experience angry at this devastating loss of an artist’s prime, but that assumes that this is his prime and that when he gets out, he won’t be hungrier and better than he’s ever been.

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