“So much white it’ll hurt your eyes,” brags the Atlanta coke rapper Young Jeezy. This is either a lie or a revelation. Back in the day, the crystalline tropane alkaloid called cocaine was used as a topical anesthetic in ocular surgery. Maybe it hurt your eyes, but you certainly didn’t feel the pain. So when Jeezy explains a track later, “This is the streets, and I am the trap”—call it blind optimism.
Jeezy celebrates himself as self-made urban philanthropist: “I used to hit the kitchen lights, cockroaches everywhere/Hit the kitchen lights, now it’s marble floors everywhere.” Charismatic before he is lyrical, Jeezy has two simple ambitions—increase your dopamine levels and his chip count. His torpid, intelligible flow, infectious ad libs (“ayyy!”), and bald imagery—a snowman, because he got dat snow, man—underscore his populist appeal. “The streets love Jeezy and I love ’em back,” “My Hood” insists, the bright horn-driven beat as melodically blunt as the sentiment. His tale is inspirational too, Jeezy must think: “The world is yours, so get on your grind and get it.”
If you only heard “My Hood,” or “Go Crazy,” Jeezy’s carefree summer anthem made from a lionhearted Curtis Mayfield horn sample and understated snare snaps and tom rolls, you might forgive his, you know, one oversight: He can “do it for the hood” only because the hood can’t; he escaped the ‘jects because he kept his customers trapped there. Gloomy, minor-key Southern production aside, Jeezy never acknowledges that fundamental irony, not even on the tender introspective “Talk to Em,” and that’s frustrating. “It pays to tell the truth, dawg, it only makes sense,” says Jeezy—you’d think he meant “cents” if he had time for small change. Worse than a liar, he’s a fool.
Harlem’s Juelz Santana doesn’t acknowledge the recoil of his drug slinging either. But unlike Jeezy, he makes no claims to inspiration, or celebrity, or much of anything. “I was taught be smart, stay humble,” he says early into his What the Game’s Been Missing! LP. The Dipset veep has realized two things since his horrific 2003 debut: He’s not a lyricist, and he doesn’t need to be. Check the song titles: “Clockwork,” “Make It Work for You,” “Mr. Postman.” Santana swipes in as his clique’s blue-collar cog. He deals to meet ends, takes everyman pleasure in sex and smoke, and jokes about fat chicks in his off hours. Over an efficient 909 clap whose minimalism is typical, what you hear is what you get: “Let me show you how to make that crack/how to spend that money/how to make it back.” He’s so busy in the kitchen he didn’t have time to work on his rhymes.
Elsewhere his verses are economical and observant, relying on tautologies and an abbreviated take on Jeezy’s ad lib: “A!” Santana’s a Southern trap star stuffed into a Manhattan studio apartment, whistling while he works but the work comes first. If his verses were anything but mediocre, he wouldn’t be so believable. In return for the free pass on the moral issues, is it too much to ask for motivation beyond rags-or-riches, or rappers who can rhyme “shotta” with more than “shotta”?
Questions for questions: “How can you call it swagger if you still really bag up?” Pusha snivels, with more at stake than money. He was riding high as half of Virginia’s the Clipse before label hassles shelved his group’s Hell Hath No Fury LP, which is now the Chinese Democracy of hip-hop. The We Got It 4 Cheap mixtape series—jacked beats, restless flow, Monte Cristo spite—comes partly to strong-arm Jive into releasing them from their contract. It’s an underdog thing. As industry machinery keeps them down (“not even a major label could dampen the stride”), Clipse take 2005’s best instrumentals—Amerie’s “1 Thing,” Game’s “Hate It or Love It,” and Mobb Deep’s “Kobra” among them—and embarrass the originals with the verses they deserved in the first place. On “Eghck,” another Clipse song that resurfaced this year, Pusha’s partner Malice reveals another wound: “I’m not proud, in fact I hate this route/this the same game got my brother strung out/so I count the ways that it fucked up his life/so I don’t have a problem with upping my price.” Responsibility is key: “Who said the game ain’t fair? A goddamn loser.”
Deeply wronged and psychologically motivated, Clipse are closer to Scarfaces and spaghetti western gangstas than mere get-out-the-ghetto hustlers. Jeezy and Juelz are entertaining, but Clipse appeal to our sense of justice. Our sympathies mount the more viciously they flow: “All the snow in the timepiece confusing them/all the snow on the concrete Peruvian/I flew ’em in, it ruined men, I’m through with them/blame for misguiding their life/so go and sue me then.” Compare that to Jeezy’s lame excuses when haters press him about young fans wearing his snowman shirt.