Tragedy has haunted rap fans at every turn for the last few years, as a seemingly endless epidemic of murder and death has claimed so many phenomenal talents. Each of these losses is more heartbreaking than the last, another painful symptom of the entrenched racist structures in our country that work to cut Black lives short. But few have hurt quite like the passing of Drakeo the Ruler, if only because he lost a life that he fought so hard to keep. After years fighting legal persecution by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, Drakeo finally gained his freedom, only for it to be taken away again after he was stabbed in the neck at LA’s Once Upon a Time music festival in December 2021.

Despite his issues with the law, Drakeo left behind a bountiful archive of influential “nervous” L.A. rap music. But there’s an inevitable heartbreak with listening to posthumous releases, and a slightly queasy feeling that the music industry profits off tragedy. Posthumous rap albums can often be uneven, stuffed with rough drafts, unfinished stems, and forced collaborations. Thankfully, Drakeo’s latest release Keep The Truth Alive avoids the commercial tropes that can turn a tribute into a crass cash-in, staying true to Drakeo’s vision.

On the sprawling opening track “Extortion,” off-the-cuff verses dissolve into a free-associative stream of mumbles and ad-libs, before Drakeo rattles his chains next to the mic so we can hear what “600k of jewelry sounds like.” His flow slips and twists, but at certain moments, the notion of a conventional verse breaks down, as Drakeo uses his voice as an expressive instrument more than just a vessel for lyrics. He frequently trails off into a fried whisper, his threats more like curses underneath his breath than aggressive boasts.

Drakeo’s sly sense of humor and wordplay are never telegraphed — he makes you lean in for the reward of a close listen. You can feel him draw close to the microphone, his words low and monotone, almost as if he doesn’t want the feds to overhear him rapping. He spits with a shrug, weaving deceptively dense bars. His lyrics unfold into an accordion of internal rhyme schemes, which gives his delivery a sing-song rhythm. “Jinkies, I breakdance when I get the bag / Wonton chops like Jack Chan, a black belt / Get the sack, then I’m gone in the wind,” he raps on “DRAKEO not Drake-O” He’s not above juvenile or edgelord jokes, like on “The Real Champion” when he says his chopper has “autism,” but the delivery is so restrained that it never feels overly trolling.

Thankfully, Keep The Truth Alive avoids the kind of clout-chasing pop collabs featured on posthumous albums from the likes of Pop Smoke and Juice Wrld, keeping the features within the Stinc Team family. Drakeo’s comrade and real-life brother Ralfy the Plug appears on “Stop Me” and “Suicide Dawn,” with a flow that’s bouncier and more upbeat than Drakeo’s creepy-crawly slithering. The kind of relentless and twisty flows favored by Stinc Team have as much in common with contemporary Michigan rap as they do the West Coast, but Ralfy’s appearance emphasizes how distinct a talent Drakeo was, his singular rasp impossible to replicate.

Keep the Truth Alive is a faithful continuation of Drakeo’s legacy, but there’s an inherent sadness that comes with listening: not just the constant reminder that his distinct voice is gone, but a suggestion of what could have been. The legacy may still be alive, but with every posthumous project and unfinished loose end that attempts to conjure his spirit, we move further away from his truth, grasping for a spirit that we can no longer hold.