As the second decade of this dumb, sopping wet millennium slurs to a close, it’s strange to consider the rise-and-fall of Webbie, the embodiment of the Savage Life, Mr. Do It Big, straight from the Sherwood section of Baton Rouge.
If you didn’t live through the peak years of Trill Ent, you might only recognize Webster Gradney Jr. as a walking meme. He was lamely mocked for his drugged ramblings through Wal-Mart. Charlemagne torched him for cheap laughs on the Breakfast Club, famously asking him about Obama, as though the man who infamously bragged about having sex with the barrel of the Tek ever expressed a straightforward political opinion in his life (despite “Fuck the Police” being one of the best political songs ever written and “Independent” deserving posthumous co-sign from Elizabeth Cady Stanton).
A few years ago when I was in Baton Rouge, the LSU kids once again became enamored with the rapper notoriously wild with that chrome. During the last few weeks of Les Miles’ coaching tenure, Coach Webbie became the people’s champ. No one was talking about his music anymore, but memes of Webbie in purple and gold football windbreakers became ubiquitous. It’s sad because ever since streaming services became music’s path of least resistance, there was one universal complaint among connoisseurs of pre-trap Southern rap: What cruel world would not allow Webbie’s Savage Life to be available on DSPs?
That changed yesterday, when the Savage famously uploaded his classic solo debut to Apple Music (and allegedly Spotify but it hasn’t shown up yet). Released in the summer of 2005, a month before Hurricane Katrina hit, Savage Life is the moment when Trill officially (and briefly) became the true heirs to Cash Money. Hype had been building since Webbie’s first full-length record, Ghetto Stories, the now-canonized collaboration with Boosie. I won’t reiterate how great that record is because I’ve already done that before, but it might be the hardest rap album of all-time. The second song is about finger fucking with their diamonds on—the most obdurate substance on the planet. Literally, nothing can be harder.
The following year (2004), Webbie and Boosie reunited for their still-great but slightly less-so Gangsta Muzik. Pimp C had already begun serving his jail sentence, so Bun B did his best to fill in as the righteous but rowdy elder statesman offering guidance to the wayward post-adolescents from the Red Stick. Like its predecessor, it became a frequently bootlegged staple throughout the South, and solidified Boosie and Webbie as the spiritual successors to UGK and the Hot Boys.
If they superficially lacked the yin and yang duality of most great rap groups, their chemistry remained startling. Webbie might have came from the North and Boosie from across the tracks, the bottom of the Southside, but they teamed up like Caine and O-Dog. Boosie was deceptively cerebral and heartless. Webbie was the brute force, the type to shoot first and ask questions later — if ever at all.
The success of those first two collaborations got Trill get a distribution deal with Warner subsidiary, Asylum Records, and set the table for Savage Life to become a national phenomenon. It was a strange time for Southern rap, the tail end of crunk and the fledgling beginnings of the trap and jig music era. “Rap City” and “106th & Park” in their prime. Mannie Fresh and B.G. pop up on the record to lend credibility, but also because it sounds like the follow-up to Guerilla Warfare that never was. Boosie makes four cameos, all of them dripping with salt-the-earth fury and lust for Halle Berry; he’s sleepless and red-eyed and leaving people in body bags for the fuck of it.
There are rap duos like A Tribe Called Quest or Meth and Red, whose genius lay in their effortlessness, trading off bars like crisp perfect no-look passes that always hit right in the letters. Boosie and Webbie were like that old arcade game Arch Rivals. Sometimes they didn’t even feel like they were on the same team, but they were playing to inflict maximum vengeance. Boosie with the Bayou Joe Pesci nasal twang and Webbie with the bass-thump baritone that hit like a corpse thrown into a sack of rocks and tossed into the bottom of the levee. Then skirting off in a Charger to go eat crawfish.
But if there is a star of Savage Life, it’s undeniably Webbie. The 20-year old was in his prime, deceptively swift as a fullback, intuitively aware of how to use his voice as a instrument, curling syllables like the Pimp, singing on “What is It” like he’d studied Wineberry Over Gold instead of chemistry class. “Crank It Up” bears a second-line brass stomp-your-teeth out smack and Webbie bragging about being in the streets like a burnt CD. If you turn it up loud enough, the bass and treble can cause a hairline fracture in your jaw.
One of the worst adjectives to describe rap music is “ignorant.” For one, it’s vaguely racist and implies that rappers have very little agency in their own art. Webbie’s mother died of cancer when was eight years old. His adolescence was spent shuttling back and forth between his father and grandmother. He struggled in terrible schools, nearly fell victim to the streets countless times, and survived to make a classic rap record. There is nothing ignorant about that. It’s reckless and raw, a reflection of a savage city with little room for escape. He’s the goon at every high school, funny and cool until he’s not. He might be unsophisticated but he understands the basics as well as anyone. As long as I live, I’ll never forget someone in Baton Rouge trying to break down to me how the lyrics to “Give Me That” were really a skeleton key to understand local gender relations.
The sequel to the record came after a three-year hiatus, and it’s nearly as good as this. After that, Webbie’s career began to slip away from him. Turk and Mel went to jail. There were rumors that the police beat Webbie so badly that it left him a little touched in the head. All I know is that when I went down there in 2012, multiple people described Webbie as being “in the clouds.” Like every rapper from Baton Rouge, there’s more than a hint of tragedy to his story.
But along the way, he dropped several masterpieces — arguably none greater than Savage Life. It’s basically a perfect rap album because it only tries to be one thing: savage. Full of no frills, ride-out-on-your enemies in a XXL Polo, with rims way bigger than yours music. Until yesterday, it was the best modern rap album to have been left off streaming services. Finally, the errors have been remedied and we’re once again free to crank it up.