EST Gee: El Toro 2

When El Toro came out in 2019, EST Gee never ran out of spellbinding ways to describe his reality as a candy man and opp exterminator. The gravel in his voice emphasized the intensity of his survive-or-die narratives and paired sensationally with the production of ForeveRolling. It was then that Gee and his right-hand producer established a brand of music that would later allow them to transition from respected members of the underground hip-hop scene in Louisville to Billboard chart mainstays. Now having proved himself across the board, Gee’s development should be fully on display in the title’s second edition.

Except El Toro 2 is a tug of war between EST Gee’s usual formula—bars about flipping bricks and making his chopper sing—and fresher style experiments that emphasize a more melodic dispatch and an infusion of R&B and soul samples. As expected, EST Gee flaunts his unfiltered storytelling, lurid wordplay, and Midwestern-to-Southern flow. But El Toro 2’s groovier production palette sets it apart. On “Tuscan Perfume,” he abandons his usual jagged rapping to murmur about thugging through the pain over a hazy, pitched-up flip of Mary J. Blige’s “You Remind Me.” On the stunt-hard paean “Another Moment With Gotti”—which features the CMG head honcho and flips Willie Hutch’s 1974 interlude “Overture of Foxy Brown”—each bar cuts through the ethereal backdrop with precision. The pulse of “Back to a Time” is so saucy that any Kentucky native is bound to hit the John Wall dance.

EST Gee is constantly aiming for his sweet spot somewhere between trap and soul. But there are times when this formula falls flat. “Nobody Else” features posthumous contributions from Playa’s fallen member Static Major, though it fails to make Gee’s romantic tales and Static’s once in-demand vibratos a cohesive rap&b product. Elsewhere, Gee is mostly focused on his memories of family trauma, cheating death, and being unable to stray away from illicit activity. These are well-worn topics for him, and while he does his best to keep them interesting, the off-kilter flows don’t always work. On “Bad Guy” and “Toast,” his uneasy attempts at singing grind against the detonating production. The records feel like rough demos dusted off to beef up the tracklist and they prolong the problem with last year’s MAD, where he was trying to fix something that wasn’t broken.

El Toro 2 finds EST Gee stuck between the old and new versions of himself. When he takes more risks and diversifies his method and sound, it’s good. When he leans on the shield and raps in the same way that he did on the first edition of El Toro in 2019, it’s not. The rapping overall is pretty pristine. And the beat selections are A1. But does El Toro 2 signify a momentous change in Gee’s career? Not quite. He dabbles with the idea of taking things up a notch but sounds like he’s still trying to figure out what else he should do and how exactly he should do it.