Release Date: February 24, 2013
At this point, the artist formerly known as Tity Boi's unlikely, winding career path has been discussed heavily. The quick rundown: He dropped several albums and one smash hit (which benefited heavily from a peak-era Lil' Wayne hook) as a member of Playaz Circle. He worked as Ludacris' understudy at DTP. He's had his fair share of great music scattered across a career that now touches three different decades of hip-hop history. After building a sudden, cult-like mixtape buzz across the country, his solo debut, Based on a T.R.U. Story, has moved an impressive 147,000 copies, a new industry benchmark of how to shift from mixtapes to sales, and a cynical example of the bare minimum of creativity required for that level of success. He's released solo mixtapes for several years, but it wasn't until 2010's Me Against the World 2: Codeine Withdrawal and Trap-A-Velli 2: (The Residue) that the spark seemed to find a fuse. These tapes even pre-dated the mainstream-friendly 2 Chainz name transition, and indicated possible new momentum behind what had been an aging franchise; tracks like "Between Me and U" and "Up in Smoke" (a masterful, underrated fusion of Christión's "Full of Smoke" with Art of Noise's "Moments in Love") indicated the rapper had a gift for the hazy afterparty slow jam, in an era when most artists reaching for the brass ring of Atlanta's rap game had to knock out peak-time hits. It's easy to see Tity's presence in Gucci Mane's "Everybody Looking" video as a kind of Styrofoam baton pass; just as Gucci's popular appeal reached a fevered pitch, he returned to prison. He was joined by T.I., hamstrung by repeated probation violations, while Young Jeezy, ready to capitalize off a hot street single, languished in label purgatory. Atlanta and its major hip-hop infrastructure-- the strip clubs, mixtape trade, and tour circuit-- had a star machine to generate revenue with a vacuum in its center. Into the void gawkily sauntered a new hero, who took the path pioneered by 50 Cent, adapted to the internet era by Lil Wayne, and fully fleshed out with three-dimensional songcraft by Gucci Mane. It's hard to avoid the feeling, particularly on his debut LP, that 2 Chainz is only able to fill those shoes by sheer force of will, rather than anything resembling artistic inspiration. His verses these days consist of blue-collar hip-hop cultural touchpoints (True Religion jeans, eating at Waffle House and Benihana, a general lack of interest in the consumer choices made on Watch the Throne) spit with a few basic rhyme patterns. These are bundled together by punchlines that split the difference between Gucci's effortless nonchalance and Young Money's rib-jabbing hashtag joke style. The gulf between those approaches is deep, yet 2 Chainz manages the tough act of seeming simultaneously disinterested in what he's saying while underlining the joke in the most eyeroll-inducing manner possible. For a dash of character, he occasionally sounds like a true man-out-of-time, with a bit of anachronistic flair reminiscent of Guru from Gang Starr. (The latter once rapped, "like baggy slacks I'm crazy hip-hop"; the former mentions his "True Religion trousers.") But unlike Guru, there's nothing else there; once you understand the basic 2 Chainz persona, there's no narrative, no room for introspection, no flexibility, nothing beyond the one-dimensional caricature he's crafted on countless other verses. Whether he succeeds or fails, then, relies heavily on how funny you think lines such as, "Go so hard, Viagra try to sign me," really are, and ultimately, whether or not he can produce quality songs. Unlike the rappers who paved the lane he's expanded to fill, 2 Chainz isn't quite as comfortable shifting through the song templates required of a flood-the-market street rapper in 2012. He can still manage the slow-burning afterparty anthem; as recently as last year, Codeine Cowboy's "Feeling You" captured the smoky backroom vibe he'd perfected. With 2011's "Spend It", he passed his most important test by generating a genuine peak-time club hit and even manufacturing one of the year's most incessantly memorable choruses. "Riot", that song's sequel, is included as a bonus track; it is a bit slight in comparison. There's a baseline of consistency to Based on a T.R.U. Story; some of the beats are clearly the best money can buy, from Drumma Boy's intricate "Money Machine" to Mike Will's frequency-filtering "No Lie", a major chart success that likely owes a bulk of its pop presence to Drake's guest verse. Drake and Kanye both seem to think the way to best fit in on 2 Chainz record is to be generally kind of shitty to the women they talk about, which makes each guest spot an obvious choice for their respective highlight reels. Yet despite his chart success with Drake, many of 2 Chainz' pop maneuvers feel tone-deaf. Typically, The-Dream balances smooth seduction with a tackier lyrical approach by infusing it with an earnest generosity. 2 Chainz is too cynical to make it work: "Dinner dates I demonstrate how to penetrate/ If you ain't with it, it's elimidate." (Rimshot.) Similarly awkward attempts at stitching 2 Chainz to the pop world include Mike Posner collaboration "In Town" and "Countdown", a dubstep-ballad which contains the representative lyrical tangle, "If love is a drug I'm arrested for your possession." Perhaps the worst offender, though, is "Ghetto Dreams": John Legend's clenched-fist vocal performance and Scarface's gravitas serve only to make 2 Chainz' detached, detail-free drug raps seem all the more disconnected from anything resembling an emotional truth. The meat of Based on a T.R.U. Story, then, is songs like "I Luv Dem Strippers", "I'm Different", "Feel Good", and "Like Me" (which contains lyrical chestnut "titty-fuck, CHEST NUT!"). These songs don't seem like major hits per se, but they epitomize his satisfyingly quirky, juvenile triviality. It's a much needed reprieve from the album's other primary color of mild mediocrity.