Last July, Young Jeezy celebrated the 10th anniversary of his acclaimed debut, Thug Motivation 101: Let’s Get It. During a sold out concert in Atlanta, he performed the album in his entirety alongside high-wattage guests, including fellow kings of the South like T.I., Usher, OutKast, and Bun B. The event was a testament to his enduring influence as “your favorite trapper’s favorite trapper.”
Jeezy emerged during an era when Southern rap took over the public’s perception of authentic rap culture. He was a hero of what was then called “regional rap,” which signified musical idioms and styles that weren’t birthed in a major label boardroom, but in the neighborhoods of Everytown, USA, and far from corporate influence. Amidst a widespread reassessment and debate over which forms of rap were truest to the art form, Jeezy stood out as a a man who seemed to truly labor in the trap, Southern slang for the impoverished working-class communities where street hustlers flourish. He performed many of his early shows at showcases and parties held by the notorious drug cartel BMF a.k.a. Black Mafia Family. He has a voice that’s wheezy and unpretentious, and his lyrics are short and to the point. He peppers his raps with adlibs that are widely copied and parodied: “Yeeeah!” “That’s riiight!” “Ha ha! Yeah!” When Kanye West collaborated with Jeezy on “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” he simply used Jeezy’s adlibs as a signature for pure authenticity. They were all that West needed.
For a few years, Jeezy’s Atlanta hometown bred the most influential rap scene in the country, and was a mainstay of nightclubs and the pop charts. Many of those hits featured Jeezy, including his “Soul Survivor” track with Akon, Usher’s “In This Club,” and Rihanna’s “Hard.” Today, however, Southern rap has receded from the pop landscape. Rising stars like Future may hold wide influence and even impact the album charts – his DS2 and Drake collaboration What A Time to Be Alive both debuted at number 1 this year. But the meaning of the word “trap” has been debased. Now, it’s a signifier for bass-heavy EDM, chirpy pop raps like Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen,” and who knows what else.
As a result, the 38-year-old Jeezy has become an elder statesman. Stylistically, he hasn’t changed much. Every album since Thug Motivation 101 largely sticks to his tales of bricks, bricks, and more bricks. He has occasionally shown political awareness, too, most notably on The Recession, a title inspired by the economic crash of 2008. It featured “My President is Black,” which honored Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
It may be just as well that Jeezy has stubbornly clung to his original “trapper” image while his personal life evolves. (Earlier this summer, he posted a photo of his son graduating from high school.) We may want our favorite artists to change, but we don’t always accept them when they do – witness the continued backlash over Jay Z’s shift from hustler rhymes to luxury rap. So Jeezy has chosen to stay in character, whether it resembles real life or not.
Piñata, the full-length collaboration between 21st-century gangster rapper Freddie Gibbs and 31st-century producer Madlib, lulls breezily between pro forma thuggery and Swisha Sweet insights, mixing progressive beats (sampled, not synthesized) with grizzled street raps (real talk, not fake Bawse boasts). But though this is well-trod ground, from the blaxploitation allusions to the Odd Future and TDE cameos (sorry, no Kendrick), there is innovation and illumination here, too. There is “Thuggin’,” wherein Gibbs chops over frail guitar licks looped and sped up into an Americanized spaghetti-gangster soundtrack, thanks to Madlib’s excavation of an arcane British library record, Rubba’s “Way Star” (h/t WhoSampled.com). There is “Deeper,” wherein Gibbs unravels a deeply metaphorical flip on Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and bemoans the decline of gangsta rap culture, “All for a nigga that ain’t got nothing that I ain’t got / Only difference is, he’s tryin’ to be a fuckin’ astronaut.”
Meek Mill raps as if he is typing in all caps: “I’M BRINGING TUPAC BACK! TUPAC BACK!” He tends to, if not necessarily screech at the top of his lungs, then at least yell loud enough to project an appealing bellicosity. He’s not the first MC with a high-octane delivery — the underrated Ace Hood comes to mind, as well as Freeway, another Philadelphia rapper. And on past singles like “Tupac Back,” “Ima Boss,” and more recently, “Actin’ Up” (with its guilty-pleasure chorus “These bitches be actin’ up / And these niggas be lettin’ ’em”), those shouted raps are aggressively uninhibited, the vocal equivalent of throwing bows.
Late last year, Stones Throw Records announced that it would release a full-length album of tunes by its veritable resident producer Madlib in 2010 . . . every month. Dubbed Madlib Medicine Show, the 12-part series sounds like a rap nerd fantasy.
Ever since his critically lionized Quasimoto adventure, 2000’s The Unseen, when he adopted a helium voice and crafted adult cartoons straight out of Fritz the Cat and Le Planete Sauvage, the L.A. musician has defined an idiom of crackling sampled loops, slightly buggered raps, and thick clouds of weed smoke. Over 15 years deep into a career that kicked off with a cameo on the Alkaholiks’ 1993 debut, 21 & Over, his enigmatic vision perseveres, even as the idealistic underground scene he once occupied — remember back in the ’90s when his old group the Lootpack chastised wannabe gangsta rappers on “The Antidote”? — has turned cynical, becoming obsessed with the same guns-drugs-porn-money quadrant it once criticized the “mainstream” for.