The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Drakeo the Ruler wanted us to listen close. His death brings a disorienting silence.

Drakeo the Ruler performs on Dec. 12 in San Bernardino, Calif. (Timothy Norris/WireImage)
Placeholder while article actions load

Grief debilitates us by disorienting us. It shows up unannounced, then annihilates the contours of life until gravity feels capricious — meaning that, when grief isn’t sending us to the floor, it’s floating us outside of our bodies, outside of time. It makes us feel other ways, too, and Americans have become fluent in pretty much all of them as we continue to stare into a pandemic that won’t end, an era of climate catastrophe that keeps accelerating and the inertia of lawmakers who appear not to care. Our grief is everywhere, and our disorientation won’t relent.

Drakeo the Ruler, the astonishingly innovative rapper from Los Angeles, made music that felt like disorientation’s opposite. He was a dazzling stylist, but his rapping always had a riveting sense of proximity — a sotto voce intimacy that allowed you to feel the precise distance between his mouth and your ear. So when word got out that the 28-year-old had died after being stabbed at a music festival on Saturday night, that distance suddenly exploded into something oblivion-size, creating its own distinct grief, another new way to feel lost and outside of yourself.

The details were horrific. Booked alongside the likes of Ice Cube, 50 Cent and Al Green at the Once Upon a Time in LA festival at the Banc of California Stadium in Exposition Park, Drakeo was reportedly stabbed in the neck backstage moments before he was set to step onstage and perform for his hometown.

He was a rap hero in L.A., but Drakeo knew how to draw everyone close, muttering fantastic insults under his breath, the way everyday people might do when they’re being scolded by an authority figure or watching a bad trailer at the multiplex. His 2017 breakout opus “Cold Devil” overflowed with what he liked to call “nervous music” — a phrase that aptly characterized the careful, conspiratorial tone in his voice, but not its eye-rolling cheek, or its artful nonchalance, or its consummate imagination. Maybe all those make-believe rivals on the other end of Drakeo’s bravura taunts were the ones who were supposed to be feeling butterflies.

He emerged from a deep lineage of California rappers who could transpose their rankest trash talk into something impossibly fresh (Snoop Dogg, DJ Quik, Suga Free), but Drakeo was wildly inventive, too, minting new slang in twitchy blurts and shifty internal rhymes. While introducing his new vocab words — “flu flamming,” “big banc uchies” — he’d often phrase his lines slightly ahead of the beat, hurrying his verses along as if stumbling into the future, an effortless tactic that made him sound literally ahead of his time.

At its best, his rapping sounded like inner monologue; at its worst, like a whispery phone call over a bad cellular connection — which is what it had to sound like on “Thank You for Using GTL,” the mesmerizing 2020 album Drakeo recorded over the telephone while incarcerated at Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles. He spent nearly three years of his creative prime caught up in the criminal justice system — acquitted on murder and attempted murder charges for a 2016 shooting, languishing after a jury couldn’t agree on a verdict for lesser charges, released after taking a plea deal in late 2020.

And yet, even in those bleak circumstances, his music felt so charismatic, so near, so alive. Your neck might have cramped up listening to it, as if you’d just spent an hour holding your phone to your ear. Now, after 13 months of freedom, Drakeo is gone, his music suddenly feels very far away, and everything hurts.

Read more:

Policing the Black imagination

The most urgent rap album of 2020? Drakeo the Ruler just phoned it in from jail.

Listening to Los Angeles rap music feels like eavesdropping on the future