When Seen It All is released this September, the rapper known to his mother as Jay Jenkins will be a few weeks away from his 37th birthday. It’s been close to three years since Young Jeezy’s last album, TM:103, was released, and if he continues at this rate his sixth album will come out around his 40th birthday. Despite approaching the halfway point of an average lifespan, the adjective “young” remains in his moniker, a resolute protest against growing old in the rap game.
That’s one challenge Biggie never faced, and the difficulties inherent in staying relevant after over a decade making hip-hop have been noted time and again. As scenes change and develop, sounds and styles come and go, leaving some formerly popular rappers scrambling to stay current (Tonedeff’s forays into dubstep come to mind), while others attempt to carry on like nothing has happened (Lil Flip’s Ahead of My Time sold 205 copies its first week, which should have been a wake-up call but instead went straight to voicemail).
Jeezy has it good in this regard because, for years, his sound has anticipated future trends in hip-hop. Going back ten years he was already rapping about the “trap” life, long before the 2012 hip-hop renaissance made trap-rap and trapstyle two of the biggest sounds in music. Jeezy also has a history with producers Shawty Redd, Don Cannon, Drumma Boy and JUSTICE League, now canonized as some of the most important producers in history (some editorializing may exist). Additionally, it was Jeezy who brought Gucci Mane into the limelight by offering a couple choice verses on his debut album Trap House, and Jeezy again who made Freddie Gibbs into a superstar by signing him to CTE, offering him prime mixtape appearances and dropping stacks for Gibbs to shoot music videos.
Yet in 2014, Gucci Mane and Freddie Gibbs remain entrenched in bitter feuds with Jeezy. The past few years have seen the emergence of a variety of popular hip-hop groups (Black Hippy Movement, Odd Future, Raider Klan, etc) as new regional genres have spawned and thrived. Soundcloud has given every bedroom producer the opportunity to become a superstar, and the internet has launched the careers of more individuals than can be counted. In every possible way, there is more hip-hop now than ever before, and the ramifications of this explosive growth are still being observed and processed.
I think it’s fair to say that the most important and controlling force in music in the 21st century is hip-hop. Scrolling through Billboard’s top 100, the popular side of rap is ever present, selling singles faster than grains of wheat during the Great Depression. On internet forums, undiscovered talent is passed around fast enough to give one whiplash. People are making hip-hop in every country. Hip-hop now has its first billionaire, and all indications suggest that the musical style will only continue to grow, branch out and root deeper.
The President of the free world has publicly endorsed Young Jeezy. More and more, Seen It All reflects how fitting its title is: from his inception as Lil J to the present, Young Jeezy has witnessed such an enormous cultural response to rap music that we are now clearly living in a world shaped and influenced by hip-hop. When I leave the house and see white people wearing clothes made popular by ASAP Rocky, this fact becomes all the more apparent. Hip-hop can be enjoyed by anyone, anywhere, at any time.
The thing is, Jeezy has been working harder than ever these past few years, but the quality of his recent musical endeavors seems to be on the decline. His CTE sponsored label releases, Boss Yo Life Up Gang Vol. 1, #ItsThaWorld and #ItsThaWorld2 have provided a snapshot of his current interests but fail to generate excitement for Jeezy when they mainly showcase YG and Doughboyz Cashout. The late 2012, confusingly titled Its Tha World (no hashtag) felt sterilized and mundane with rote production and repetitive lyrical imagery. Even looking back at TM:103, too many songs appeal to the commercial side of hip-hop and many of the featured artists are worthless shills undeserving of their guest spots (I take aim at Ne-Yo, Fabolous, Jadakiss and Future in particular).
I am highly critical of Jeezy’s work because I believe that in the past he has been able to produce high caliber music that is both stimulating and refreshing. In 2011, the lead up to TM:103 saw the release of The Real Is Back, a mixtape hosted by DJ Drama showcasing Jeezy’s imaginative wordplay with a limited cast of featured performers and a greater emphasis on rhyme structure and song composition. Just over three months later The Real Is Back 2 dropped, a shorter and more refined study in Jeezy featuring songs like “Trump,” “Rough” and “Gotta See This” which have more than withstood the test of time. These two mixtapes cemented Jeezy’s status in the second decade of this millennium and offered a tantalizing retreat to the heyday of Southern hip-hop.
We stand on the precipice of a monumental moment in hip-hop’s history. As the past is dissected by historians, the future remains open to possibilities. The next big thing could be the “Migos” flow, drill’s legitimate gangsterness or noise-rap. Yet even by this writing, tastes and attitudes are shifting in such a way as to make it impossible to predict what will come in the next few years. I do not expect Jeezy to release an album chock full of innovation, wit and versatility; nor do I want to hear the same old thing he’s been slinging recently. My hope for the new Jeezy album is “comfort rap.” I’d like to hear Jeezy make an album insulated from public opinion and distanced from whatever is selling records these days. I don’t want to hear any features from Ariana Grande or Iggy Azalea, nor do I want to hear production from anyone who cut their teeth during the internet trap boom. Jeezy has demonstrated his ability to create music true to his (and hip-hop’s) roots, and he is perhaps the last bastion of honesty in mainstream rap.
At this point, the album is finished and what’s done is done. The only thing which remains to be seen is if he can maintain his integrity in a landscape of compromised values (Juicy J and Snoop Dogg have both worked with Katy Perry) and dominating greed (Snoop Dogg has also worked with The Pussycat Dolls, Psy, Lance Bass, Far East Movement, Robin Thicke, Britney Spears, Mariah Carey…). Jeezy could be remembered for staying true to himself, or he could be remembered for selling records. Only he can decide if he’ll do both.