Will Hagle ain’t have no work done like Kendall Jenner.
“4 AM, I’m just getting started. For my birthday I threw me a surprise party. Reminiscing bout the trap playing the first Carter. My life changed when I had my first daughter.”
The opening lines of “4 AM” sound like the opening lines of the next great American novel. Add in the “Mm. / Hahaha / Tell ‘em!” adlibs that punctuate each sentence, and 2 Chainz should be at least as eligible as Bob Dylan for the Pulitzer.
2 Chainz has reemerged over and over again throughout the past several seasons of hip-hop history, each time improving upon or otherwise evolving from his previous incarnation. He’s like Richard Alpert in Lost: ever-important and never aging. With Rap Or Go To The League, his latest LP, 2 Chainz didn’t necessarily improve upon his previous full-length album, but did evolve from it.
Both his new LP and 2017’s Pretty Girls Like Trap Music have long, poetic titles packaged with enticing artwork, high-profile features, undeniable hits, and lyrics that often induce hilarious or poignant visual imagery. “NCAA” is almost identical to “Rolls Royce Bitch,” in that both are incredible gang vocal screamed tracks that could double as legitimate advertisements for high-paying corporations. 2 Chainz should license “NCAA” to TruTV for the rest of March Madness, with the requirement that the company’s executives pronounce the channel’s title the same way he would. “NCAA” is the standout energetic hit of the album, though, from an artist who tends to deliver much more than that.
What made Pretty Girls Like Trap Music great was the sheer amount of radio hits concealed within it; and concealed within them, the consistent amount of brilliant phrases. It felt like 2 Chainz was self-aware of the inherently ironic nature of trap music’s global popularity. It seemed like he was toying with that contrast via the album’s name, artwork, production choices, and lyrical content.
On Rap Or Go To The League, there are moments where it feels like 2 Chainz is trying too hard to adhere to the album’s theme. He might be looking to justify his legitimacy as a serious rapper, but he’s doing so in a way that his audience doesn’t need. He’s already done that, on album after album, feature after feature, from the beginning of hip hop history and probably time. People know and respect him for his obvious, layered talent. The tone-shift from PGLTM to ROGTTL is admirable, but perhaps not as successful in legitimizing 2 Chainz as the artist himself might have hoped.
Or maybe it’s not 2 Chainz attempting to present himself as serious. Maybe it’s the people who write about 2 Chainz making me and you think that about him. Maybe we came into the album with that preconceived notion. We only noticed those parts of it, ignoring all the fun things and the point of the thematic structure.
The Apple Music description of the album claims that LeBron James essentially “executive produced” Rap Or Go To The League. According to the global media conglomerate, Lebron was “taking notes as the music plays, offering suggestions about where to include features, and scrunching up his face in reaction to some of the harder-hitting production.” As LeBron seeks to build his own media empire, he’s meddling in the affairs of another.
The difference between Rap Or Go To The League and Pretty Girls Like Trap Music is, ironically, like the difference between LeBron and Michael Jordan. Rap Or Go To The League is great, but Pretty Girls Like Trap Music is the greatest 2 Chainz album of all time.
On Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, Gucci rhymes “Kevin Dur-ahnt” with “Kevin Durant.” On Rap Or Go To The League, every time 2 Chainz references an NBA player it sounds cringy and forced, causing me to scrunch up my face like LeBron complaining about something on the court.
Even though people might just remember the hits, because there were about 10 of them, Pretty Girls Like Trap Music contains as much, if not more, of 2 Chainz’s essential introspection and life-affirming statements as Rap Or Go To The League. All of his albums do. There’s nothing uniquely special about his approach on the new album, other than the title is perhaps more thought-provoking and meaningful. He still raps about similar things in a similar way, but his production choices, featured artists, and overall tone appear to comprise for him a rare step back.
The narrative of the incessant peddler who overcame the worst obstacles is one that 2 Chainz has been peddling for his entire career. He wasn’t the first person in Atlanta to frame himself within that narrative, and he won’t be the last. Yet in some sense, 2 Chainz is his own home city. Atlanta’s musical scene has flourished for years, with him on all rungs of the proverbial ladder. Rap Or Go To The League might be a reminder that 2 Chainz is actually an incredible artist, but anyone who claims it’s his career-affirming project hasn’t been listening to his other work closely enough.
The most promising aspect of Rap Or Go The League arrives on the eleventh track: “2 Dollar Bill” featuring Lil’ Wayne & E-40. E’40s verse made me scrunch up my face like Lebron on the court complaining about someone touching his arm. Lil Wayne’s reminded me of the good old days. The song has generic subgenre-targeted beat and a relative lack of freshness that accompanies the three veteran rappers, but that’s exactly how I’d like to hear 2 Chainz transition gracefully into old age.
In the two years separating Pretty Girls Like Trap Music and Rap Or Go To The League, slow beats with serious themes have become more prominent within Atlanta and outside of it. Because of 2 Chainz’s stature, it’s unlikely that he’s intentionally borrowing from younger artists. He does, however, seem to be wanting to explore that side of his own consciousness. He does so while maintaining his signature levity, and the name Rap Or Go To The League obviously doesn’t prime listeners for a fun listen, but something about it doesn’t seem quite right.
In response to 2 Chainz’s (or the media’s) conscious attempt to manifest a new public perception of himself, however, people do seem to be taking him more seriously. Of course, they already had started doing that, when he put out about 10 hits in 2017. “Please don’t make me relapse / Make me start back trappin’ / Everybody in the city saying that boi Titty done started back snappin’,” 2Chainz says about himself on “Saturday Night,” the opening track of his previous album.
Lest 2Chainz’s biggest fans find fault with this article, rest assured that I am not complaining about Young Thug. I am not complaining about “Forgiven,” featuring Marsha Ambrosius. I don’t think Rap Or Go To The League is bad, by any means. It’s just not nearly as fun as 2Chainz can be to listen to, from Pretty Girls Love Trap Music to Hibachi For Lunch’s “Lil Baby,” all the way back to when Tity Boi was a little baby and Lil Baby didn’t exist.
Across these two albums, 2Chainz appears to be grappling with the question he poses on Rap Or Go To The League’s “Threat 2 Society”: “Would you rather be underrated or unemployed? Think about it.