It started a couple of weeks ago, with the unlikeliest of progenitors: The Boss.
Bruce Springsteen dedicated a live rendition of his hit “Born In The U.S.A.” to Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. Everybody cheered, even though that song isn’t really a “go America!” kind of song at heart, and after all these years of defending it, Bruce should know better, but whatever. Good feelings, yes?
No. When confronted with the honor, Phelps shrugged it off, and admitted he was more into hip-hop.
In fact, he put forth, he listens to Young Jeezy to get psyched up for events. Guess he’s never heard “Jungleland.” Not one to miss an opening in the news cycle, Young Jeezy promptly stepped forward and pronounced Mr. Phelps “the Young Jeezy of the swim world.”
While that’s all to the good (except for a snubbed Bruce!) Jeezy’s self-aggrandizing compliment has a certain amount of wishful thinking to it.
Sure, the Atlanta-based rapper’s had two commercially stellar albums on Def Jam: 2005’s “Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101” and 2006’s “The Inspiration: Thug Motivation 102.” He’s had radio success with hits like “Soul Survivor,” “Go Crazy,” “I Luv It,” and “Go Getta” (with R. Kelly). His muscular, graveled drawl is unmistakable, and his stressed delivery and epic Dirty South production (lots of synth horns, cinematic swells, and snapping snares) have covered well for a decided lack of lyrical dexterity (more on that later). But Mr. Phelps has his medals in his pocket. Jeezy, whose latest album is out today, has the race ahead of him.
“The Recession,” (no course listing with this one) features a cover with Jeezy’s head draped in an American flag. That title, that cover, and the scowl on his face suggest he’s fed up with the downslide of America’s dollar and international reputation. Indeed, the title track opens the album to a chorus of newscaster voices bemoaning the economic downturn. As triumphal horns set it, a woman wonders who will fix things, and it seems clear that Jeezy, ever the motivator, will come through with the answer. See, Jeezy has crafted a role for himself as a sort of street-forged motivational speaker (hence those scholarly designations on the first two albums), sharing lessons learned in the drug game with those seeking success. He’s called himself “Donald Trump in a white tee,” but he’s more the Tony Robbins of crack.
Yet once “The Recession” kicks in, it’s clear that Jeezy is mostly bummed out about the economy because it’s forcing him to curb his big spending. He may still have his personal driver (though for how long?!), but he simply can’t “make it rain” in the strip club the way he used to. Yet despite such heartbreaking cutbacks, Jeezy seems on a mission to continue to inspire and motivate the people by example. Times may be hard on the boulevard, but Jeezy is going to rock that ice, show off that cash, so you don’t have to forget what wealth looks like: “Rims still spinning / even though the money’s slow they still spinning.”
Aside from that? You’re on your own, America!
The album’s conceit is a bit trickle-down in essence, which brings us to another recent blab that brought Jeezy into the news. In the July issue of Vibe, Jeezy admitted his respect for Sen. John McCain, saying “I fuck with John McCain.” Ever since he’s been doing damage control, wearing Obama gear, going out of his way to proclaim his support for the Democratic candidate, and even penning the tune “My President,” in which he states plainly “My president is black,” though he adds “My Lambo’s blue / And I’ll be god damned if my rims ain’t too.”
On YouTube there’s a teaser for the album wherein Jeezy interviews regular folks to see if they are “living it up” despite hard economic times, rising gas prices, and worries over health care and crime. He muses over how entertainment functions mainly to distract us from the real problems at hand, and wonders if it’s inappropriate, in times like these, to rap about his watches, his cars, his obscene wealth. It’s an intriguing move, especially given that he’s made a career off ultra-materialism, and one that could be a harbinger of rethinking what hip hop can be today.
The results of such stocktaking are in evidence on several songs here, but most prominently on “Crazy World.” “I want a new Bentley / My aunt need a new kidney,” Jeezy rhymes, and though he’s clearly wrestling with the fantasy/reality troubles that helped fuel, for example, the housing crisis, he’s not exactly offering many solutions (or much compassion). In the same song he asserts “I think Bush is trying to punish us / Send a little message out to each and every one of us.” One keeps hoping he’ll put some spin on the fact that Bush did send those stimulus checks out to each and every one of us.
At 18 tracks and over 70 minutes, the album is far too long, particularly given that the bulk of songs are samey filler. Jeezy, as ever, seems to take a strange pride in his lyrical laziness, as though it’s an indicator of his extreme success that he barely needs to show up to work. Elsewhere, as on “By The Way,” he fails to capitalize on his own lyrical conceits. In this case, the offhanded nature of the refrain is rendered moot by Jeezy’s harsh growling.
At its best moments the album matches inventive takes on the Dirty South sound, courtesy producers like DJ Toomp, Drumma Boy, and Shawty Redd. It may come as no surprise to learn that those tracks are also the ones where Jeezy bothers to put in some work on his wordsmithing. “What They Want” utilizes a dense, alternately epic and druggy backing beat for some of the best rhymes of the album. Saying he’s “Teaching for a living,” Jeezy packages his motivation as a series of sports metaphors, a verse each for basketball, football, and baseball. “Word Play” specifically addresses those who criticize Jeezy’s skills, though his first move is to simply posit he’s more interested in the drug game: “but I’m ’bout bird play.” It builds from there, and ultimately the track, atop of shimmering, female backing vocals, cooks with some of the best lyrical gymnastics of his career—and some self-serving mentions of Biggie and Tupac. “Circulate” makes use of a atypical and excellent soul-soaked beat, all horns (real ones this time) and disco strings, with Jeezy weaving his words through the beat, rather than competing with it.
The album is back-loaded with guest stars, from boast-fest “Everything,” where Anthony Hamilton contributes some backing yelps and a pretty good guest verse, to “Put On,” where even an atrociously Auto-Tuned Kanye can’t spoil the dumb fun. But Jeezy saves the best, and the most political stuff, for last. The album’s final song is the aforementioned “My President,” where Jeezy speaks directly to an Obama presidency, suggesting a divine component at work (and again big-upping himself in the process): “I will E-mail Jesus and tell him to forward to Moses and cc Allah.”
Nas contributes a stunning double-time verse, before slowing down for the hands-down best bars on the album. As the album closes, Jeezy lilts “My President Is Black,” careful to add just before the fade out, “I’m Important Too Though!”
In the end Jeezy isn’t here to dazzle you with tongue-twists, triple-meanings, or brilliant imagery. In the end he’s pretty much doing what he’s been doing for several years now, while adding a few dashes of social consciousness, either out of genuine concern or to capitalize on an election year. The latter is probably the more likely explanation, and in a way the more satisfying, because it means the Thug Motivator, while he may not be staying up late worrying over his lyric notebooks, is up late all the same, devising that new marketing hustle.