Ten years ago this week, things were very different. Technologically speaking, our relationship to music was very different. YouTube didn't exist, but it would in a month. The iTunes store had been around for two years, but it was still three years away from being the biggest music star on the planet. We still listened to most of our music on CDs, but—with greater and greater frequency—those CDs were filled with music we downloaded from the Internet as MP3s. In short, it was the sweet spot between what was and what would be. Music was still seen as a tangible good, but it was readily portable, speedily distributed and easily copied. Internet service was affordable and widely accessible but not ubiquitous. Manufacturing and printing high-quality CDs could be done easily from any desktop computer. This brew of advances was perfect for the ascension of DJ Drama's mixtape empire. And no release quite captured the moment like Young Jeezy's Trap or Die.
From the outset, Trap or Die was monumental and momentous, foreign and far-fetched, realistically hype and highly surreal. Young Jeezy was a rapper most of us had never heard of before he introduced himself a cappella, by letting us know that not only had he predicted that he would change the game—he had already done it. "230,000 units strong in the motherfuckin' streets, nigga," he stated, claiming his music was what was good in the hoods of Georgia and Alabama and Tennessee and points beyond. "Niggas playing my shit like albums, nigga. Nigga getting show money off mixtapes, nigga. How real is that, nigga?" It was an approach that 50 Cent had pioneered and perfected in the years prior, but 50's G-Unit had become superhuman and larger than life. Their music was abrasive but polished, their personalities deadly but removed. Young Jeezy, on the other hand, was right next to you, his voice gravelly with a gravitas that minced itself from your speakers, and—unlike most rappers past and present—Jeezy refused to talk down to his audience; he wanted to lift them up: "I'm here for thug motherfucking motivation, nigga. [I couldn't] give a fuck what you niggas think—I'm here to motivate the thugs to get this bread, nigga." Even without knowing about Jeezy's bonafides, real could recognize real from the outset.
Young Jeezy was right next to you, his voice gravelly with a gravitas that minced itself from your speakers
Still he took three separate tracks to introduce himself—the aforementioned "We Tried to Tell 'Em," "Intro," and "Get Ya Mind Right." The music was cinematic, the narrative autobiographical, turning a sequel of sentiments into blockbuster boasts. When he rhymed, "Said I was affiliated with all the gangsters and killers?/Fuck you thought I was gonna do—turn my back on my niggas?" it was uncomfortable and honest, climactic and heartfelt. When he opened "Get Ya Mind Right" by rapping, "I'm the realest nigga in here—ya already know/Got 'Trapper of the Year' four times in a row," you knew it was an absurdist brag, but it wasn't hyperbolic. He was so incredibly dismissive of studio gangsters ("Minus all of these videos, stickers, and flyers/Most of these rappers are compulsive liars"), and so full of unflinching, yet cautious detail ("Your Uncle Grady never stole all your rocks/You never hid eight balls in your socks/And you ain't lost Mel Man and Goldmouth/And you ain't never have the drug task in your house") that his credibility was beyond question—even if you didn't know who Big Meech or BMF were at the time.
Trap or Die worked a two-pronged attack to devastating effect—the dual narratives of realness and motivation promoted not just verisimilitude, but a purpose to the truths. It's sociopathic in the head but well-intentioned at heart. The spoken-word interludes underscored and heightened the rhymes, and vice versa, both playing off each other, and familiar beats mixed in with new ones provided both comfort and freshness. DJ Drama provided the voiceovers, rewinds, and sound effects in abundance, but also sat out whole tracks at time. It was relentless "get money" music, as opposed to droning "got money"—which is the difference between gym music and club music; the line between Pusha T and Jay Z, Jeezy and Rick Ross.
As a rapper, Jeezy's metaphors seemed strained and belabored, yet the project succeeded because he was running for a hood president on the platform of being a reluctant rapper. "It was either be a rapper or sit behind bars," he shared, breaking out an over-worn theme. But his awkwardness as a rapper, mixed with his sincerity, gave his songs a feeling that could almost be considered quaint, despite the grim subject matter. On "We Luv Ya" he rapped: "I'm not a plumber, a nigga can't fix cars/I'm an astrologist—I know all the stars/ I'm not a politician, a lawyer or a doctor/A barber or a teacher, a rapper or a preacher/And I ain't gone' lie—I had a nine to five/My trap opened at nine and it closed at five."
It's hard to believe that Trap or Die came out only 10 years ago—so much has changed since then. Myspace was hot. Lil Jon was hot. Dave Chappelle had not yet said his great goodbye. The year prior, Kanye West had released College Dropout—high-fashion rap wouldn't be in vogue for years. Jay Z had retired in a way that actually meant something, and the creation of Danger Mouse's Jay Z-inspired mixtape, The Grey Album, was raising some serious questions about sampling and distribution at the birth of a digital age. Even the tape's co-architect, DJ Drama, had not been known much outside of the South, much less on the radar of federal authorities.
And Young Jeezy had yet to understand the importance of checks. What may be perhaps the most revelatory truth about Trap or Die can be found in Jeezy's 2011 documentary, A Hustlerz Ambition. In it Jeezy tells a story of moving down the runway aboard a private jet as a promoter hot foots it beside the plane to give him "a big check." Jeezy stopped the plane, grabbed the check, and, unaccustomed to dealing with checks, put it in his pocket and neglected to cash it. "I never wanted to fuck with checks—I thought that was some lame shit," he confessed. "But, for the record, now, I'm going to sit down to get another check, because I know checks are important. You should want a check, too. Get your check; checks are good. Cash is better, but checks are great. That's the motto: Cash your checks." So it has to be kept in mind: The guy who made Trap or Die—who, by 10 years ago this week, had released at least two full-length projects on his own label, who had secured two major record deals, who had released a mixtape which made him a regional superstar—that guy, somehow navigated his life to a point where he was flying on a private jet, but did not realize the importance of a check.
It's telling what he described as his boon for the Trapper of the Year four-peat. "What they give you?" he's asked. His reply: "A lifetime supply of baking soda and clientele/A Rolie watch, two pots, and three scales." And a few years ago, when looking back on his life, he realized without forgetting, that there are people out there who need to be told to cash their checks, because they have such a cash-based world view. He now knows that checks are important, but at the time he didn't. And, instead of flashing his check in your face, he wanted you to know that checks are great. He wanted you to know that you should want some checks, too. That's the guy who made Trap or Die, and that's why it's so important.
kris ex is a writer living in L.A. Follow him @fullmetallotus.