I'm at a studio on the west side of Manhattan, where Young Jeezy is scheduled to shoot a music video. It's dead quiet: White guys in streetwear are walking softly around editing suites; a flat-screen is noiselessly flashing the DVD menu page for Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Then Jeezy rolls in. He sets himself up in a fluorescent-lit conference room, where an on-call barber has been waiting. And while Jeezy's draped in a "BET Hip Hop Awards 2011" barber cape, a swirl of activity — a circle of publicists, stylists, and cronies — forms. Along with a string of other reps, Def Jam senior VP Shawn "Pecas" Costner is trying to talk Jeezy into attending a party later that night. Apparently, there is some high-level exec whose ass has to be kissed. Jeezy brushes this off, and rattles off an amusing story about a particularly hood strip club in Detroit in which he partied last night. The punchline: "So I quit drinking again. This morning." Nearby, video chicks in skintight dresses get their makeup and hair done, and discuss the shoot. Girl A: "He said 'club experience.'" Girl B: "Well, those leggings are not [DRAMATIC PAUSE] I'm not gonna let you look crazy."
The New York rapper Fabolous, here for the shoot, shows up and directs a question to no one in particular: "Where's the smoke balcony? Let's visit that place." A fortysomething Russian guy in a leather jacket follows, rocking two gold Jesus pieces. He hands them over to Fab and explains, in a heavy accent, that "gold I usually like is much thicker." Fab responds by suggesting that these particular Jesuses have a passing resemblance to Osama bin Laden. Then a miscellaneous lackey rolls through with a stack of Styrofoam takeout boxes marked "NACHOS," "CAESAR SALAD," "NEW YORK STRIP WITH EGG," and everyone starts grubbing.
In the middle, Jeezy's still getting his beard lined up, still getting stray bits of head stubble shaved away,1 and still fielding questions about scheduling and availability and the clean version of the single. Costner commends him for his concentration, and Jeezy shoots back, "I'm used to serving 10 niggas at a time!" He mimes the motion of handing out a series of crack vials to customers, the way he used to as a drug dealer in his hometown of Atlanta, before he started rapping. "And another five waiting around the corner. This ain't shit."
The video, being shot in a large room made nearly unbearably hot by the ring of lights stringing the back wall, is a standard point-at-the-camera-while-dancing-with-a-hot-chick deal. Jeezy is introduced to Heather, the woman he'll be gyrating with: "Wassup, baby. Nice to meet you." I try to tuck myself in a corner out of the way, and nearly bump into the appropriately large butt of another video co-star, who's changing into her civvies. Meanwhile, a short scruffy guy in a Yankees cap is shouting out technical directions ("frame it for a medium wide") while director Aristotle Torres deals with the talent. One of the cameramen, a wan hipster, can't get his shot, and shyly blurts out "Um, yo, Jeezy, can you back up a ..." The Yankees cap guy cuts him off, hiss-whispering: "Don't ever do that. Don't talk to him." Wan hipster: "Um, OK. Can they back up a half a step?" Torres: "Hey, can you guys back up a half a step?"
The cameras roll, and "OJ" kicks in. I know I technically shouldn't, but I can't help but be impressed by Jeezy's ability to — in a room full of people, and early, on a weeknight — immediately begin to act like he's starring in a rap video. Heather's also clearly been to the rodeo before: Propped behind Jeezy, she starts rubbing his back, popping her butt, making angry-kissy faces at the camera. She's being just a bit difficult, though. Between shots she complains that Jeezy is "locking" her in — apparently, while she's doing the rubbing from behind, he's bringing his arms down, trapping her underneath his armpits. Jeezy's advice for the situation: "That's swag, baby. You gotta turn it up." A few shots later, Torres tells Heather to stop crouching. But she's worried that, in her heels, she'll be taller than Jeezy. "It's all good," Jeezy barks out. "I'm standing on the money."
It's been three years and four months since Young Jeezy last released a studio album, an eon in hip-hop (the span of Jay-Z's retirement was shorter). It wasn't supposed to take this long: His album TM103: Hustlerz Ambition, which was released on December 20, was announced in late 2009, and originally scheduled for release in February ... then June, September, and December of 2010 ... and up through July, and September, of 2011. Hip-hop delays are a time-honored tradition, and often laughed off by fans. But because the release of TM103 repeatedly seemed imminent — there were singles, "pre-album release" mixtapes, magazine covers — this particular delay took on an ominous tone. "His fans started to become a little tired," says Costner. "You know, if there's a kid in a candy store and his mother promises him candy but doesn't buy him any — after a while, the kid is gonna have a tantrum."
There was one other thing. By his last album, 2008's The Recession, Jeezy's place in the rap universe was firm. He was Da Snowman, a hood drug king turned real-as-hell rapper. He had become shorthand for the ghetto: He was stash houses and street corners. When Kanye West was recording his 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak, he explained to reporters that, "at the end of the day, I make my shit white T-shirt2 ready at all given times. You know how niggas have bumper stickers that say 'What Would Jesus Do?' Our shit is like, 'What Would Jeezy Do?'"3
But while Jeezy was gone, a peculiar thing happened: The Miami rapper Rick Ross worked his way into our dude's market share. Originally, Ross, as a similarly cocaine-obsessed Southern rapper with a blocky flow and bombastic beats, was knocked as a Jeezy clone. Later, when he was outed not so much as a cocaine don but a former corrections officer, he was knocked as an impostor. None of it mattered. As Ricky's flow matured into the tricky, crisply enunciated marvel it is today, he cracked rap superstardom. Now he even has a trademark grunt.4 As narrow-minded as it sounds, the narrative was set: In the "hood drug king turned real-as-hell rapper" lane they shared, Ross had, for now, bested Jeezy.5
And, somewhere between Ross' ascendance and Jeezy's unexplained absence, the anticipation for TM103 curdled.
In 2005, Young Jeezy released his debut album, Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101, and dominated the summer. His groundswell had started in Atlanta, where a string of hit mixtapes had already made Jeezy a hometown hero. When Def Jam broke him on national radio, things blew up. Crack-rap — hip-hop that dealt primarily with drug slinging — was the sound of the year, and Jeezy was its brash, imposing ambassador. To understand the level of mania we're dealing with: By the end of the summer, Jeezy had landed himself a sweet little media controversy when his promotional T-shirts — featuring, hilariously, a frowning snowman — began to be banned in school. A News 12 report from the time suggests you "look closely this is no typical snowman. This one has a menacing expression."
As the story goes, Young Jeezy never planned on being a rapper. Originally, he wanted to transition from drug-dealing to music moguldom. He bought a studio, and founded a label. But "all my artists got locked up," he tells me. "All 10 of the motherfuckas." So one day Jeezy threw his hands in the air, said "fuck it," and gave this rapping thing a try himself. "I always pretty much been hands-on," he recalls. "But I wasn't able to get [my artists] to go as hard as I wanted them to go. When it was my time to get up in the booth, a lot of the frustration came from that. What you could hear was the stress in my voice."
It's true: Minutes into Let's Get It, that perfect rasp of his has you feeling paranoid and traumatized. Also, undefeatable. Jeezy was haunted, but he wasn't here to sulk. Check the title: He was here to inspire. All his hard work had paid off. Over the hard, sharp snares and warm synth-stabs of his massive trap music beats — many provided by the producer Shawty Redd, who had become a close collaborator and friend — Jeezy positioned himself as the crack Horatio Alger. And he was calm and solid in the pocket, and blunt in the best sense of the word: focused, compact, a steady barrage of body shots. The force of his conviction was arresting.
I could quote favorite lines all day, but all you really need to know: "And that ain't this / and this ain't that / and bitch I'm strapped."
After the video shoot, I tag along with Jeezy and the crew — road manager Carbon, security team Stone and RL, and videographer J-Star, all big guys dressed in all black — to an interview at Hot 97. We're being chauffeured through a rainy evening of traffic, and the SUV is silent except for the voice of Hot 97's Miss Info, who's promoting the interview we're on the way to tape. Jeezy, working his phone, doesn't look up. Miss Info brings up Jay Bilas, the ESPN college basketball analyst who's taken to shouting Jeezy out on the air. She quotes Bilas, from that week's Missouri vs. Villanova game: "And as the urban philosopher Young Jeezy says, 'You better call your crew. You're going to need help.'" And here, with a little chuckle, Jeezy acknowledges that he's being discussed in a public forum. I use this as an in for an attempt at small talk: "Oh man! Has, like, everyone been asking you about that?" He nods in the affirmative, still not looking up. I go back to staring at my hands. My phone vibrates. It's my mom. I decide not to pick up.
Inside the Hot 97 building lobby, things get more awkward for me when the kindly lady escorting us upstairs triggers my deep-seated elevator phobia: "These elevators get stuck when you put too many people in them." I got stuck in an elevator once when I was a kid, and it takes all of what little mental competence I possess to not freak out every time I'm forced to get in one. But hearing this, I look around at the giants I'm about to share this space with, and lose it. My mouth dry, my heart pounding, I beg the lady for the stairs. Kindly, she crushes me: "Emergency access only."
And that's how I come to be nestled between Jeezy and his tall friends in the petite space. Someone reads out the elevator's max weight capacity, and everyone starts joyfully tossing out their weight to tally if we're over. I'm having a hard time imagining a worst-case scenario. I'm also having a hard time breathing. And then, seeing me trembling in fear, Jeezy's crew reveal themselves to be good, solid people: They start comforting me. Stone tells me to "count the sheep," and that "it'll be over quick, like a shot." RL bugs his eyes out, then flashes me a big smile full of gold fronts. Finally, the doors open, and I stumble out to safety, my shakes subsiding. Carbon laughs it off: "We got dirt on you, boy! We got dirt on you!" He turns to Jeezy: "Yo, now he have to write us a good one, or we put him on blast." Jeezy responds, with what I'm almost sure is a smile, "That's what it is."
By the next day, I'm feeling downright welcome. I show up at Young Jeezy's hotel, an intimidatingly ritzy midtown spot called The London (Katy Perry, in town for Saturday Night Live, walks in, largely unnoticed). While I wait for my interview I hang out with the crew, making small talk about WordPress and Slick Pulla. Carbon tells me they were hoping to set Jeezy and Jay Bilas up while they were in New York, but that Bilas is in North Carolina shooting a commercial. He shows me a text from Bilas: "As you know im a big fan! Still waiting for that 103!"
Jay Bilas, sir, you are not the only one. And when I sit down with Jeezy, we get into it: What the hell took took so long? Leaning back on a cushy London sofa, his Ray-Bans on, Jeezy explains himself. "I started a while back, as we all know. In Miami. That's like my rest haven. I was really enjoying myself: King of Diamonds, parties, yachts, whatever. And it was like, things were on a cruise control." After a while, he realized he had to get back to Atlanta. But at home, a more serious situation presented itself. Shawty Redd, with whom he had continued to work closely since Let's Get It, had been charged with murder after the shooting death of a man named Damon Martin took place in his home on New Year's Day, 2010. Redd was pleading self-defense.
"I took a little break to be by his side," Jeezy says. "Things were really real for him, and I don't think he understood the position he was in." Jeezy moved into Redd's home, staying for roughly half a year. "I had a room, I brought my TV, I had my Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and we just kicked it. The plan wasn't for us to record but we got bored sometimes, so we'd go to the studio in his basement and fuck around. It was me and bro, eating good every day. We'd play spades, watch a couple fights, watch the games. We'd just eat and talk shit."
Says Lil' Lody, a young producer who's featured heavily on TM103, "Shawty Redd, this is his little brother forever, and [Jeezy] was right by his side." At the time, Jeezy heard the grumblings. "I realized that the world was mad because the album wasn't out. But it was something I had to do."
Simultaneously, Jeezy's relationship with Def Jam was crumbling, a development he traces back to the November 2008 suicide of Shakir Stewart, the man who signed him to the label. "That was my guy," Jeezy says. "My buffer, my confidant, my right-hand man. He made the building understand me." Jeezy blames Def Jam for the string of unfulfilled TM103 release dates that angered fans. "The label wanted to go," he says. "They got deadlines and quotas and shit. It was them thinking that if they throw dates out, they can pressure me to go. And I just didn't speak on it because I was still working. But I don't play that game." (Costner's take: "There was definitely miscommunication among the dates we had chosen. [Also] he got caught up in the recording process of, every few months, making a bigger and better record.")
As for Stewart, Jeezy says, "You see somebody with such a great spirit, and you never know what they going through. And that was the whole Shawty Redd thing. Like, I don't want to lose another friend because I'm being selfish. As much shit as me and [Shakir] talked about, I felt if I had took the time to talk to him more about what was going on personally, maybe I could have understood the chain of events. Sometimes we lose great people."6
Eventually, Jeezy set himself up on the west side of Atlanta, "back in the hood. Fuckin' every day, every night, in the studio. And not in the beautiful studio. We had this big-ass office space and we converted it." Jeezy effectively moved in. "I slept on the sofa, but I didn't even really sleep. I might [pass out] for 30, 40 minutes. We had a shower in there, so I had my little brother bring me clothes. I'd brush my teeth, throw on a white T, and work. I ate ramen noodles. You know, I was back on my trap shit." He says that — when it actually came down to it, after the years of near-misses — he recorded the album in just a month and three days. "When it came to the end, I didn't want to stop recording. It was flowing out of me. I was doing verses in five, ten minutes, doing songs in 30. It got to the point where all my records were done and I was just like, 'Yo, just give me something.' I just wanted to rap."
I work up the nerve to ask about Rick Ross. I want to know if Jeezy agrees with the public opinion: That, during his hiatus, the portly MC had risen in his place. Instead, I stammer wildly: "Um, you know, some people, they compare the two of you, and they think that maybe ... " He takes the bait anyway. "What you gotta understand with me is that it's not rap. It's a way of life. This is how I live." In other words: If you'd be so kindly as to recall, I never worked as a prison guard. I realize we might have been talking about Ross earlier, without me noticing, when Jeezy rolled out his sales pitch: "What's the difference between me and the next rapper, the next guy who say he lived my life? It's like you a colonel in the army, and you went to Harvard, and everyone else went to Iraq, and you wanna tell motherfuckers what to do ... You ain't been in the fuckin' war. We ain't goin' for that shit."
Now, he adds another veiled dig: "I created my lane. No one can ever run my lane because it's mine. I'm the Michael Jackson of my lane. And you know nobody was as great as Michael. I love Prince but he's not Michael."
Wait. As I'm following it, Rick Ross is Prince in the analogy. So does that mean he likes Ross' music? "I mean, you know, I'd rather not even ..." he says, before trailing off into a series of chuckles, smiles, and "come on, bro" hand gestures. Then, back to the point: "Once the music comes out, everybody will see. When it's Jeezy time, it's just Jeezy time."
We meet again in the dressing rooms of the Ed Sullivan Theater, where Jeezy is shooting an appearance on Late Show With David Letterman. In the room over, the stand-up comedians Hugh Fink and Steve Schirripa are quietly talking shop. In the hallway, an intern is furiously re-scribbling a cue card with a giant marker under the observation of a higher-up. ("It should read 'Twas the Newt before Christmas?") Jeezy and friends have commandeered the rest of the space. The barber is back, as are the Def Jam reps. A stylist shows up, dragging a giant rack of clothes behind her. Jeezy's bounding between the dressing rooms and the bathroom, whipping up different looks, checking after his chains, yelling out "star time!" as he moves. He spots the amenities — shrink-wrapped sandwiches, a few baked goods — and shoots out, "We got cookies and shit. Where the fuck is the Ciroc?"
Can he really be this cool about everything? At the time, TM103 had launched high-profile tracks, most notably the Jay-Z and Andre 3000 featuring "I Do." But it hadn't launched a big single. Costner admitted that was on the label's mind. "For the last three albums, we went into album store dates with singles doing between 60 to 70 million in audience," he says. "But the fact is that this guy's a street artist, with a big street fan base, so a radio single is always hit-or-miss."
Jeezy knows fans might be skeptical after the hiatus. "I feel like I'm married to what I do, to the streets," he tells me earlier. "And I feel like when the streets are mad, it's serious. This is people. They elected you. TM103, motherfuckers been waiting." He admits some insecurity as to his content. "It's bigger than just me rapping for the cats that was on the corner with me," he says. "Now people listen to me in Israel, in Pakistan. How do you reach all these people with the same message?" And he even sounded wistful for the days when that wasn't a calculation he had to make. "You know, those first albums for us career artists," he says, "they classics. Reasonable Doubt. Nas' shit. Thug Motivation. Classic. Other albums that follow are gonna be great, but nothing is ever gonna be the same."
For now, though, there is a new record to plug. Jeezy, who's picked out a very dapper orange sweater and black jacket combination, heads down to the cramped back hallway behind the ground-floor studio. David Duchovny, who'd taped his bit earlier, is milling about a few feet away in the green room, with his daughter and son. Jeezy, his ever-present headphones having moved up from his neck to his ears, is oblivious. And that's when I realize, for the first time all week, that Jeezy is listening to his music off a Discman. "That's awesome!," I can't help but blurt out, pointing down at his hand. He thinks I'm talking about the gold watch popping off his wrist, which, yeah, is plenty awesome as well. "You like that?," he says, turning it over to give me the full look. "Oh, no. I meant the Discman." He doesn't miss a beat. "Yeah, baby. Old-school." Then he trots out to the stage.
The Duchovny clan and I head to the back of the theater to watch the performance. While all four of us rhythmically bop our heads up and down, I think about Jeezy's calm. At some points of our conversation, I feel like I'm more concerned with how TM103 will be received than he is. But he's been dealing with this for a long time. "I was always somebody," he reminds me. "I was famous at the Chevron." Besides, things are looking up: Just last month, Shawty Redd was acquitted of all charges. "I've had some trials that would have made the average motherfucker jump out a window a long time ago," Jeezy had said earlier. "But if you wake up one morning and say, 'I can't do it no more,' then it's all over. That's why I wake up every morning and say, let's do this shit. Let's get it."