I. Alphabet Boys Got Us Under Surveillance
Summer, 2005. Williamsburg. This is the video shoot for “Soul Survivor,” a song designed to make Young Jeezy, a pudgy, baby-faced rapper with whispered-about ties to cocaine distributors, bankable beyond his native Atlanta, to New York radio and across the American West. His debut album, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, leaked months before its street date; Def Jam, the label that signed him when his local mixtape enterprise proved impossible to ignore, seems to be okay with that, since it forced the hit-song-averse Jeezy to keep the obvious smash on the final tracklisting.
Akon, who produced the song and sang on its hook, is milling around in a white tracksuit. Lil Wayne showed up earlier in a red Ferrari; Beanie Sigel was tapped for a cameo; Cam’ron and Fabolous were hanging around, ready for close-ups. Jay-Z, officially retired from music and in his first year as president of Def Jam, is there, too: he drove to the shoot in a sky-blue and champagne-colored Maybach. Before long, two more Maybachs pull up, only this time they aren’t ferrying famous music executives. They belong to Demetrius Flenory, better known to most—including federal prosecutors, as it later turned out—as Big Meech. His Maybachs block in Jay’s. “There’s a lot of folklore about Big Meech,” said Benny Boom, the video’s director, in a 2015 interview with Complex. “Mostly all of it is true.”
The short version is this: Meech and his brother, Terry, had been running cocaine in their native Detroit since the late ‘80s. By the turn of the century, they had a nationwide distribution network, with Terry living in Los Angeles (for proximity to Mexican connections) and Meech overseeing the hub they’d established in Atlanta. They were known as the Black Mafia Family, and over the course of their enterprise they made at least a few hundred million dollars. Meech had designs on becoming a rap mogul, and had begun mounting a major push for his prized signee, Bleu DaVinci. But Meech was better known at this moment for the credibility he lent Jeezy: slipping the rapper’s records into rotation at strib clubs and throwing thousands of dollars while they played, lending cars and jewelry for video shoots, and so on.
By the summer of ’05, the walls were closing in. In October, the indictments would come: more than 150 when all was said and done. Meech tried unsuccessfully to get his case split off from his brother’s, who had been caught discussing business on tapped phones; Terry was fretting that Meech’s increasing public stature was putting BMF in jeopardy. In September 2008, each brother was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison.
But not yet. “Soul Survivor” was about to break Jeezy nationally. When Thug Motivation came out in July, it debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200; by September, it was Platinum. It was immediately clear that Jeezy was the first rap star Def Jam broke under Jay-Z’s stewardship. What took longer to come into focus was how Jeezy would embody shifts in the economics and aesthetics of commercial hip-hop, and how he would survive as a profitable star far beyond his moment at the top of the creative food chain.
II. Trap or Die
In 2018, trap music is a strange, diffuse thing. The definition has been warped and expanded, and the style’s DNA can be seen, in varying amounts, in disparate subgenres across the continent: drill in Chicago, the SoundCloud rap sprouting out of South Florida, even some of the sparse, icy R&B from New York and Toronto. Rae Sremmurd gesture toward trap’s format with a considerably lighter touch; Future and Young Thug have alternately doubled down on its most familiar vocal approaches and pushed them to the avant edges. Strains of EDM that have nothing to do with rap music at all have adopted the name. Fetty Wap, one of the most commercially successful rappers to come out of the Tri-State this decade, debuted with a single called “Trap Queen.”
When Jeezy came out, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. Trap’s most fundamental elements—quick hi-hats, punishing 808s, synth- and brass-based melodies—have been around, in differing arrangements, for years, particularly in the South. (It’s difficult to imagine the arc of trap production without Pimp C’s work, for example.) “Trap” itself was a noun, and occasionally a verb, referring to drug dens and the work that went on in and around them.
It had been woven into verses from Atlanta artists through the Clinton years, but it wasn’t until T.I. became a national star in the early 2000s that trap music was codified for mainstream audience—and even then, only about half of 2003’s Trap Muzik would read clearly as trap music to today’s younger listeners. But T.I.’s work, especially with Toomp, was an integral stylistic part of the mainstream’s shift to Atlanta, and by the time 2004’s Urban Legend came out, the score was clear.
This was during a strange period for album-oriented hip-hop, at least at the major label level. Of the 10 rap LPs with the highest first-week sales totals in ‘04, two were helmed by a declining Eminem; two were by G-Unit members who weren’t 50 Cent; two were by Nelly, who was quickly running out of ideas; one was a legacy album by the Beastie Boys; one was a posthumous 2Pac album. Those eight were joined by the fourth-best Ludacris album and The College Dropout. There was a vacuum to be filled.
Though he didn’t have the same sort of muscle or capital that Big Meech enjoyed, Jeezy, too, harbored dreams of running a label. He was passionate about music, but didn’t consider himself an artist—he was a street guy, and figured he’d end up as someone’s Dame Dash. (Jeezy has never been arrested or charged for a drug-related offense, although he was implicated by some testimony during the BMF saga.)
He made some early recordings under the name Lil J (a few of which are actually very interesting, in a somber, post-No Limit way), and an independent album called Come Shop wit Me, on which he sounded uncannily like Trick Daddy. It was an alliance with a teenaged producer, Shawty Redd, which helped Jeezy formulate a style of his own: slower, pounding, Gothic beats, with slower, painfully direct vocals. The resulting mixtapes, Tha Streetz Iz Watchin and Trap Or Die, were revelations. The former, from the summer of ’04, is a stunning departure from the Come Show wit Me material. There’s no artifice or trickery to Jeezy’s writing. It’s cold-eyed, growled out in a restrained rasp—he sounds aggressive, but as if he’s not using all of his voice.
There were transcendent moments right away. “Air Forces,” even in its earliest, demo versions, was absurdly good, rattling off simple contrasts: “These other niggas is jokers/What they re-ing up with? I spent it all at Strokers”; “While y’all robbin’ and boostin’/I’m standing over the stove like the chef at Houston’s”; “Who gives a fuck about friends?/If you mix the baking soda with it, you could get a Benz.” Shawty Redd’s beats pounded and pulsed and embraced the B-movie stakes. It was around this time that Def Jam first expressed interest (this is while L.A. Reid was running the label).
By the time Trap Or Die was released that winter, the hype around Jeezy had reached a fever pitch, at least in his corner of the country and some corners of the internet. A couple years earlier, 50 Cent had cemented the mixtape circuit as a road to corporate stardom, but the circumstances were different. For one, 50 was in New York; more importantly, he had already been signed to a major, and was something of a known quantity. His mixtapes were more proof of concept than anything—yes, some became sensations, but they were résumés showing that he could project the requisite Eastern seaboard menace while churning out pop hooks at a remarkable clip. As compelling as Jeezy’s new direction was, there were few songs that could pass for radio fare, and there was little precedent for an artist with his style working outside of the South.
III. I Stack Dead People
When it came time to spin the mixtape momentum into something that could be sold in Wal-Mart, Jeezy grew even more exacting. At the photoshoot for his debut album’s cover, he was horrified to learn that Def Jam’s art department had outfitted the boxes he was to be cocooned in with prop money. (The scene would end up being mostly cardboard anyway; bills poked out here and there, mostly to suggest the presence of others.) He asked how much fake cash they were using, was told $2 million, and ducked out to make a phone call. Less than thirty minutes later, some associates of his pulled up, armed with duffle bags, and pulled out about $1.8 million in real, usable American currency. When they realized they were $200,000 short, Jeezy darted out to his car, popped the trunk, and bridged the difference. “I can’t talk to these people about Thug Motivation when we have fake money in the boxes,” he told Complex on the album’s tenth anniversary. “That would make me just like every other rapper.”
For Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, Jeezy morphed into something between T.I. and Tony Robbins. The album opens: “I used to hit the kitchen lights—cockroaches everywhere/Hit the kitchen lights—now it’s marble floors, everywhere.” You, too, can have a kitchen like mine.
Jeezy didn’t get mad, he just got money; he stayed vigilant for Ford Tauruses; he ran through a hundred grand watching Matlock; he extorted Def Jam for money on his lead single; he instructed you to drive exactly the speed limit; he just got a camera in the peach on his license plate. He exhorted you to be the best version of yourself. It wasn’t reportage—it was a trainer at the gym, barking in your ear, an uncle who was sick of seeing you mope around the neighborhood.
Songs carried over from the mixtapes, sometimes with the vocals re-cut. Jeezy did not have, by most conventional measures, a strong voice, and he was still doing the thing where it seemed he was rapping in the loudest whisper possible. But when combined with the frank writing, it had the effect of making all of this—the buckets of crab legs, the suitcases full of cash—seem attainable, like it was right there on the horizon line. You, too, can have a kitchen like mine.
What could seem like amateurism actually proved to be some of that year’s most gripping songwriting. Jeezy could project menace and incredulity at the same time (“I’m talking Grants and Jacksons/Swear it took a whole hour just to count the Jacksons”); he argued his side of gangsta rap’s moral tug-of-war succinctly (“It’s kinda hard to be drug-free when Georgia Power won’t give a nigga lights free”). He was cool, clean, epigrammatic. On “Go Crazy,” he held serve against a dialed-in Jay on the legend’s stylistic home court. And on “Talk To Em,” Jeezy showed he could wring New York’s soul-sampling confessionals for all their pathos. He writes to incarcerated friends, pining for their release, and to his departed grandmother, who stonewalled feds when they knocked on her door. “Bricks in the attic, and you ain’t know,” he rapped, “Your grandson killin’ ’em—getting 24.”
TM101 is a sprawling, bold, brilliant album, and could still be argued as the best distillation of trap music into a single retail album. And yet Jeezy is not the blueprint for the prominent trap rapper of this decade. That distinction would go to his molasses-mouthed rival, Gucci Mane, whose ambling flows and obsession with English as something he could fold and bend in on itself have made him one of the 21st century’s most influential artists.
Jeezy and Gucci first worked together in early 2005, before TM101 was slated to hit shelves. The song the pair recorded, “Icy,” became a minor hit, but became a topic of dispute between the artists when Gucci refused to give the song to Jeezy when Def Jam tried to earmark it as a lead single. The feud was quickly moved to wax, and then, apparently, off of it: in May, a group of four men broke into the house where Gucci was staying, apparently threatening him. Gucci started shooting, killing a man who was known as Pookie Loc, a friend and collaborator of Jeezy’s.
Gucci would eventually be acquitted of murder on the grounds that he acted in self-defense. But the on-record beef only escalated. (Years later, on “Truth,” Gucci would rap: “Go and dig your partner up, nigga, bet he can’t say shit.”) There was a spat between Jeezy and DJ Drama when the latter, who had helmed mixtapes for Jeezy in the past, decided to add Gucci to his Gangsta Grillz series.
Personal animus aside, Gucci and Jeezy have stark differences in their musical aesthetics. TM101 songs like “Talk To Em” and “Go Crazy” were notable for transposing Jeezy’s trap onto more conventional, East Coast-centric grids, but in 2005, they seemed like stylistic exceptions. Within a couple of years, though, Gucci made Jeezy sound like the classicist the South could rail against. He would mumble and drawl, limber and laconic, or he could snap to attention and be bone-chillingly vicious. He broke convention in countless ways. By the end of the aughts, he was putting together a superb—and unbelievably prolific—run of mixtapes that are direct antecedents to much of the rap music that charts today.
But Gucci himself didn’t become the crossover star that Jeezy was—at least not right away, and not in ways that were immediately measurable. Part of this is due to the legal and medical gauntlets that he had to navigate during his creative prime. But there was also an economic angle. Jeezy proved his mettle with a series of mixtapes, but Gucci poured his life into the format. This was in the days before monetized streaming, of course, and while he certainly made his share of money playing shows and peddling CD-Rs, as Gucci’s catalog became more voluminous, more impenetrable, distilling it into a broadly marketable disc seemed less likely, at least to the Warner Bros. executives charged with wrangling him. When the major finally got an album into stores, 2009’s The State vs. Radric Davis, it was impressive and modestly successful, debuting at No. 10 and eventually going Gold. Its thinner follow-up from the following year opened at No. 4, which was the highest Gucci would chart until he was released from federal prison in 2016—that 4 spot is equal to the lowest debut Jeezy ever suffered across seven albums up until 2017, when he debuted at #6.
Despite that economic disconnect, when histories of the past decade in hip-hop are written, Gucci will be cited as the more influential artist, which in some ways he is. (Gucci’s reputation is bolstered by the fact that he’s the greatest A&R in Atlanta’s history, identifying future star after future star, from Flocka to Future to Thug and beyond.) His music is beloved by critics and tastemakers—some of whom recognized his greatness during the 2000s, while others caught on, sheepishly, years later. But this isn’t a zero-sum game; his success, and his legacy, while easier to trace through today’s marketplace, does little to diminish Jeezy’s own.
IV. Nothing Changed But My Clothes
Last week, Jeezy announced that his next album, Thug Motivation 104: Trust Ya Process, will be his last. Rappers tend to be like boxers in the sense that retirement is often an abstract notion or an idle threat; in Jeezy’s case, it would mark not only the close of a well-worn creative outlet, but the end of a quiet, methodical professional life. But the adage says that a boxer isn’t finished until he’s had one fight where he’s no longer the greatest, and Jeezy—while further from rap’s obvious A-list than ever before—has yet to be knocked out.
His most recent album, December’s Pressure, is competent, credible, and sterile. He’s fluent in the sounds that are viable on radio today, but remains basically unchanged in terms of his subject matter and sensibilities. The record runs 44 minutes and has 12 guests, nearly all of whom seem more consequential to music today: Kodak Black and Kendrick Lamar, Tory Lanez and Trey Songz, 2 Chainz, Tee Grizzley, J. Cole, and so on. YG, who needed Jeezy’s co-sign to secure a release date from Def Jam for his debut album, stops by; in the years since Jeezy began mentoring him, he’s become one of L.A.’s most beloved artists. Jeezy, for the most part, is written about as a legacy artist, whose reputation is solidified but whose new music is of little import.
Which is strange, considering he had the No. 1 album in the country just over a year ago. Despite a relative dearth of press, Jeezy’s still widely listened to, and widely celebrated; Trap Or Die 3, which was triumphant and smartly constructed, beat out a Kenny Chesney record for the top spot. Since TM101 and before Pressure, Jeezy’s albums have opened at 1, 1, 3, 2, 4, and 1.
Those chart positions don’t tell the whole story, though. In the last decade, he’s only had one single hit the Hot 100 without an A-list guest feature (heartfelt apologies to those who have Plies on their A-list). Jeezy’s become, paradoxically, one of the most listened-to rappers in the mainstream while being one of the least talked about, peeking through to national audiences when Jay or André or Kanye wants to work out something personal on one of his songs, but mostly content to play to a massive and fiercely loyal base.
Jeezy fell out of vogue, at least in the critical community, for a variety of reasons. The record industry, for reasons of cost and efficiency, prioritizes identifying new talent over developing artists who do not become overnight stars; in the last decade, the music press has largely joined the labels in this sort of trendspotting. As a veteran artist who is not a superstar, Jeezy seldom found himself at the center of the news cycle. (By contrast, Gucci, whose post-Terre Haute music has been shaky at best, is the beneficiary of a groundswell of goodwill, and is featured on magazine covers and countless pop singles.)
While TM101 remains one of trap’s high-water marks, that album is now more than one degree removed from popular trap rappers’ aesthetic choices, especially when it comes to Jeezy as a vocalist. To anyone from 21 Savage to the Migos to the SoundCloud kids and beyond, Jeezy might as well be Jay-Z, an elder statesman whose style should be preserved in amber, but not necessarily followed closely. He broke convention in 2005, but saw the fringes of the style he helped create claw their way to its center.
Similarly, Jeezy has come to represent an old economic model. In the W. Bush years, the mixtape circuit seemed radical as a star-making strategy; today, the idea of testing sounds and singles on free projects for use on a label-sanctioned effort to follow many months later is unusual. (It does still happen, but is not a carefully deployed strategy––it’s the sort of fortuitous break that comes when a rapper is on the cusp of a contract expiring, or when a hit bubbles up unexpectedly, like “Bodak Yellow.”) The rapper who once taunted his corporate bosses on “And Then What”—”Def Jam, seven figures, we can finish the deal”—is now consistently their fourth-quarter savior, swooping in at the last second to save the balance sheet, then retreating to hibernate.
When Jeezy came out, he went to great lengths to cultivate the image of a reluctant hustler pushed—by T.I., by Def Jam, by the specter of federal agents—into another business that was at least as distasteful. He became, ironically, the consummate career musician, a company man in the age of digital reproduction. But it also makes sense that he would eventually want to walk away on his own terms. For all the shifting sands in commercial rap, Jeezy remained smart, blunt, and effective. See “Spyder,” the exultant first song from Pressure: “I came from the bottom—that’s right, under the basement/Supposed to leave it in the pot ‘til it’s harder than some pavement.” More than a decade in, he was still cooking up clever turns like that, shoehorning his entire past, with its ruthless capitalism, unbelievable tragedy, and near-catastrophes into neat little vials, ready to be distributed.