Doc Zeus is so cool, he glides when he walks
As sales of rap music have been slowly exsanguinated from the veins of the once powerful music industry, the desiccated husks of major record companies have been forced to increasingly rely upon “tentpole stars” to make their nut for the year. While the democratization of production tools and distribution methods provided by the internet allow new, creative artists to be discovered on seemingly daily basis by fans, it’s also had the stifling effect on the diversity of artists released on major labels. Record companies, in a desperate effort to stay profitable, are forced to rely upon a stable of tried-and-true rap stars to keep the entire enterprise afloat.
One of the results of this has become the birth of the “event album cycle,” a bland series of marketing affairs built squarely on the hype of already established stars releasing their increasingly focus-tested wares to the public. “Event albums” have always existed in some form since the dawn of the music industry. It’s simply smart business strategy for the industry to capitalize on fame and an established track record of mega-stars like Mariah Carey, a U2 or Eminem to drive the sales of the company. The industry has always placed a high premium on artists that can sell millions of units to fans, allotting huge resources to the marketing of artists to fans. However, due to internal hemorrhaging caused by massive illegal file sharing, major labels have become forced to almost exclusively count on their biggest stars to remain a viable business. In the era of the 360 deals, major releases from stars can generate media interest that drive tour sponsorships, radio play and album sales that are crucial for profitability.
In the rap industry, this has manifested itself into a ubiquitous, click swallowing cycle of media synergizing hype whenever a new “event album” is released. Media outlets desperate to draw eyes to their flagging brands often synchronize their content to the release schedule of a flagship artist creating a feedback loop where an artist dominates attention and discussion on social media. It’s not uncommon to see major hip-hop media outlets such as XXL or Complex to dedicate entire weeks of their product to “celebrating” an artist such as Drake or Kanye West by producing endless music lists, interviews and retrospectives dedicated to one artist.
Of course, the cycle of hype has also generated a flattening effect when it comes to the actual music itself. It’s no secret that if you take a quick view of many of the track lists of albums released on major record labels over the last few years, you will quickly find that many of the same artists and producers appear repeatedly on each album. You can hardly find a major label rap album that does not feature a guest appearance by Rick Ross, Jay Z or Chris Brown to name a few. With the margins of an entire record label’s profitability so razor thin, it makes little sense for a label to release an album that attempts to break from a rigid, radio-ready formula. When a major album flops, it has the catastrophic potential to impact the lives of not only the artist themselves but your average, everyday employee at a record company. It’s not unheard of for a record company to engage in layoffs if a major album fails to reach sales expectations. The ultimate result is that many albums feel like focus tested carbon copies of whatever is currently hot on the charts.
All of this is prelude to the latest “event album” that has been the focus of hip-hop over the last few weeks, Young Jeezy’s Seen It All: The Autobiography. Over the last decade, Young Jeezy served as a litmus test for a generation of hip-hop fans. For the true believers, Jeezy’s brand of catchy, tyrannical trap rap harnessed the Snowman’s inherent everyman-turned-slum-superhero charisma into millions of records. For the non-believers, Jeezy’s habit of trading pure lyricism for monotonous, overbearing trap rap production, morally bankrupt tales of crack sales and simplistic “same-word-with-the-same-word-with-the-same-word” rhyme schemes was the artistic nadir for a decade of hip-hop. As with any polarizing figure in hip-hop fandom, the truth probably lied somewhere in the middle but the ideological lines were never clearer – you either loved him or hated him.
A near decade after the release of his landmark debut record, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, Jeezy has found himself languishing at the margins of true rap stardom. Jeezy has enough lingering resonance with hip-hop fans that his new album, Seen It All: The Autobiography, feels like a major label event in 2014 even if nobody is quite sure if Jeezy really matters anymore to the average rap fan.
While his previous album, 2011’s Thug Motivation 103, sold a healthy 683,000 copies, his spot as a trap superstar has seemingly long since been eclipsed by his Def Jam label mate and one-time rival Rick Ross, an artist who in many ways started out as a cheap Jeezy knock-off. In the three years since TM103’s release, Jeezy has fought permanent label intransigence (if not indifference), serious gun charges and even his own mortality – Jeezy unceremoniously dropped the oxymoronic “Young” from his moniker last year at the ripe age of 38. When you couple that with dwindling interest in street music by the rap purchasing fandom, the environment for a Jeezy comeback has never felt less likely to manifest.
If Old Man Jeezy was hoping to rejuvenate his career, his new LP is unlikely to provide much of a spark to that cause. Seen It All is about as dull and tedious as these albums get. Jeezy strays little from the same stale formula he’s employed over his four previous albums, relying far too much on high-profile collaborations and increasingly dated production over memorable songwriting or even dynamic personality. The 65 -minute running time on the Best Buy deluxe edition is often a pained chore to slog through. The album is lacking Jeezy’s trademark charm to compensate for repetitive song structures, lax lyrical effort and uninspired beats.
Thematically, Jeezy is attempting to blend his drug-dealing motivational speaker persona with a new world-weary savviness accrued from a decade of rap stardom. Songs like “Black Eskimo,” “Holy Ghost,” “Me OK” and “1/4 Block” seek to paint the Snowman as a sage veteran of the streets, but the songs never gel into something particularly memorable. Jay Z, Rick Ross, Game, and Future all appear on the record to deliver mailed-in guest verses that don’t add anything to the record beyond looking good on a track listing.
The production is uninventive, utilizing extremely tired trap beats that felt dated four years ago. This is somewhat puzzling as it was only last year that Jeezy found himself in the midst of minor renaissance after guest appearing on two DJ Mustard-helmed smash hits, Yo Gotti’s “Act Right” and YG’s “My Nigga.” Mustard, who is easily on the vanguard of commercial rap production right now, could have provided a little sinister edge to the record if Jeezy had simply picked up the phone and called in a few favors. Instead, we are left with a series of bland records, seemingly to get the album finally released on Def Jam.
When the album released two weeks ago, Seen It All was only able to deliver 121,000 copies in first-week sales. While this certainly is respectable in the modern sales climate, this was nearly a 50% decrease in sales from his previous effort only three short years ago. The question should be asked is this merely a reflection of Jeezy’s persona finally running thin with fans or indicative of fans growing increasingly restless with homogenized mainstream rap. Last year’s most celebrated album, Kanye West’s Yeezus, was in large part a radical departure from your standard event rap formula. While I personally
wanted to throw it into the Springfield tire fire was not a fan, there is certainly something admirable about attempting to break from the mold. Ultimately, Seen It All feels like an album that is caught out of season. It’s no longer winter for the Snowman.