Eight years ago this month, Atlanta rapper Jeezy released “My President,” which capped off a year of excitement about then–Illinois senator Barack Obama’s presidential run with the definitive anthem celebrating his historic win. “Obama for mankind,” the rapper growled, “we ready for damn change, so y’all let the man shine.” Despite a unique set of challenges — a recession, mounting tensions in Iraq and Syria, domestic terror, racial strife — the country improved under its first black president, although Atlanta has recently seen an increase in violent crime that is reflected in the chilling nihilism of up-and-coming local rappers like 21 Savage. I met Jeezy for the first time in the New York office days before the release of his new album Trap or Die 3 (i.e. two weeks before the election), for a conversation about nurturing the growing political awareness “My President” soundtracked and maintaining his footing as a commercial rap institution with a decade of top-five albums under his belt.
The elephant in the room right now — in every room — is Donald Trump, whose tone-deaf characterizations of America’s inner cities as hellholes full of desperate people with nothing to lose. Trump’s snide grin amid a firestorm of hate crimes he won’t denounce as president-elect this week drives home the necessity of local activism with painful clarity. A year ago, Jeezy began to work through these kinds of notions more explicitly and came away with last fall’s Church in the Streets, which shifted gears by looking past his trademark gothic pomp and drug raps into the broken lives of the people on either side of the trap-house door. The records scorched, but sat peculiarly in a discography otherwise full of club brawlers.
Trap or Die 3 is an interesting venture for Jeezy, in that it arrives just a year after Church in the Streets as something of a corrective. Cuts like “Going Crazy” and “It Is What It Is” hew toward the brutally bleak in production and attitude, in service to the gruff dope-boy anthems its predecessors in Jeezy’s Trap or Die series demand. Perhaps by design, the new songs paint with fewer colors than their Church in the Streets counterparts, but the end result is a sturdy collection nevertheless. Church in the Streets didn’t feel out-there enough to warrant this snap back to the rubber-band lifestyle, but Trap or Die 3’s present perch atop the Billboard album chart, Jeezy’s third No. 1 showing in three years, is proof he knows what his audience wants.
Talk to me about the inspiration to come back to the Trap or Die series after giving us Church in the Streets last year. It seems like kind of a battle between what people want to hear and what you want them to hear.
It was to restore the order. It was sonically where I want to be. Those are some of my best records I’ve done with [producers] D Rich and Shawty Redd, and I just felt like it was the best thing for all of us to get the gang back together to create something that felt like the first one but was new and fresh. From the beginning of the process, it just felt right. It felt like what I needed to do.
You don’t use the Trap or Die title lightly. What is it about the new songs that line them up with that legacy?
The sound, for one, and then the message, for two. Trap or Die is always about motivation and inspiration from a street level, and the music on this body of work is at street level, but it’s a street boss talking, from a boss position. It’s about bossing up and staying on your grind even when you’re doing well or even when you think you’re doing well. I feel like that’s needed in the game ‘cause a lot of the music you’re hearing now, it doesn’t really have substance. It sounds good but it doesn’t really have substance. So I just wanted to put out music that sounds good and has substance as well, so it ain’t just something you sing in the club, and you go home, and it’s back to real life.
So, the flip side to the coin of the last album?
Last album, I felt like that had to happen. Church in the Streets was something that was heavy on my mind, and I felt like I had to just get it off. That’s where I was mentally, so it wasn’t no way to derail that. I tried to write songs about feeling good and write songs about having fun, and it just didn’t come out right. Everything I did with that album from “Just Win” to “Scared of the Dark,” that’s just how I was feeling. I couldn’t shake it for nothing.
You have something going now that not everyone does, which is that you can get a major label to drop a Jeezy album pretty much like clockwork every fall. What’s different about your label situation now from a few years ago, when we had to wait a few years for TM103 to come out?
I got better at my craft, and I understood that a body of work is a body of work. You don’t really have to overthink it or overdo it. People just want the music. A lot of times when I was in-between albums, I would give away two mixtapes and stuff like that to build a buzz, but now it’s almost like … why do a mixtape when you can do an album that feels like a mixtape? You kill two birds with one stone. When I’m ready, I’m ready. That’s one thing I give Def Jam. When I’m ready to move, they’re with me. They don’t ask a lot of questions, and they support what I do.
That’s not sustainable for just anybody, is it?
Yeah, but I don’t think they want one of their flagship artists giving away free music. [Laughs.] At least that’s what they tell me. At the same time it’s like … I would rather have a great body of work than put out a gang of songs that just might be okay …
… Just to have something out?
YG is one that seems built to last like that. Are you coaching him on how to stay relevant?
YG was the real deal when I met him. I just always saw a lot in the kid and felt like getting him out of his element and moving him to Atlanta. Really being there to help him and mentor him. I think that’s all he was missing. Connecting the dots and the different regions he didn’t have. People didn’t know him in the South at first. Nobody really knew who he was in Tennessee and all these different places. So having him come to Atlanta to pick up some of the sound … I felt like what he was missing. When I heard him and [DJ] Mustard together, it was really a no-brainer. Watching them what they do and telling ‘em, “Okay, that’s your intro.” “This is your single.” “You should do a song with Rich Homie Quan.” Even the Drake record, I remember him playing the beat and I was like, “Okay, that’s what we’re gonna put out second, so just make sure the hook you put on that makes sense cause this is a real club song.”
That’s clever because it seems like that’s a dude who could’ve just ate forever just sticking around Cali. It’s an interesting move to tell him to engage other places.
One thing I give him, man … He got his own vision. You can tell him anything, but he knows what he wants, so my whole thing was just helping him reach his goals. I wasn’t there to be like something is right, something is wrong. He’s one of those people where if you tell him something, he’ll register it, and when he figures it out, he’ll call you. When he started seeing some of the stuff work out that we started talking about, it was easier to have those conversations with him. He wasn’t as resistant.
Who else that’s coming up right now do you see as having that growth potential?
Aw man, my late, great brother Bankroll Fresh, I feel like he was next in line. Unfortunately, he passed, but he was one of those guys … he got it. He had this whole organic street thing that was undeniable. He was working with one of my guys, D Rich, and they were making music that people were really perceptive to. You’d go in the club and hear eight or nine of these records like, “Who is this kid?” He was so close. At the time, it felt like, to me, right before he passed, he was coming into his own. He was definitely next up.
Actually, that was gonna be my next question. I was gonna ask you about him, and I was gonna ask about Shawty Lo. Could you speak to what he meant to the culture that people might not know?
Shawty Lo was the real Westside. I don’t think people understood. He really brought snap music to the table. So when you heard Fabo and Franchize Boyz, that was him. It was his people. I respected it too, because he went from somebody that was CEO to making his own songs and having his own buzz. I went through that myself. I had a label at first and ended up becoming an artist. Just as far as Atlanta is concerned, if you ever go to the Westside or go to Blue Flame, all they play is Shawty Lo and that sound, all day and all night. Two of the biggest records I ever got on came from his camp, and that was the Fabo “Geeked Up” record and the Shawty Lo “Dey Know” record. Even to this day, I do those same records onstage. He just was a good dude, great father. He was always humble, always on the case.
Eight years ago, you released “My President” around the excitement of our first black president. We’re in the last hundred days of his presidency now, and I’m curious whether your city feels better off now than it was in 2008.
We improved as a culture watching his kids grow up and watching him and his wife handle a lot of dire situations. That made people excited about what’s going and made people really pay attention to politics. From where I’m standing, we never really cared about politics. [Laughs.] We ain’t watch any debates and we didn’t care. But now if you’re in barbershops, people talk about politics and what’s going on and who’s next up.
Speaking of who’s next in politics … are you concerned about this next election?
Absolutely. It’s different, what you have to pick from. It’s sad you can only pick from two people, you know, it’s the reality of it. [Pause.] I won’t be voting for Donald Trump. [Laughs.]
What do you do when you can’t trust your politicians to be sensitive to the needs of your neighborhood?
I think you step up yourself. That’s the problem. We’re always depending on politicians and these magical people to come around and fix things for us. We gotta govern and fix things ourselves. We gotta stand up as black men, as leaders, as community staples and be like, “What do we need to figure this out?” It might not even be for this generation. It might be for the next generation. Is it being more hands-on with the kids, giving them more outlets to do whatever it is they do? Helping to set up some real college programs? What is it? Is it building community centers? What is it that we’re not doing? I think this generation, it is what it is. You’re not gonna be able to go back and change somebody. They already feel like it’s them against the world anyway, and until you show them different, they’re always gonna feel that way. You can’t go and tell them to do better when you’re not giving them options. With the next generation we gotta do better as people. These kids don’t ask to be put in these situations. I have to give them credit because to be out here trying to stay alive every day and feed yourself, that’s a real thing. You’re basically in the jungle. You’re a lion cub.
Last question: One of your nicknames is Snowman. How do you feel about the movie Frozen?
My daughter likes it. [Raises shiny watch.] I’m the only one frozen around here. They call me Pinky-Ring Shawty.