Southward, the Path of Empire Takes its Way: Young Jeezy’s Thug Motivation 101

Whether you like the album or you don't, the Atlanta trapper's major label debut is a generational touchstone. Abe Beame explains why.
By    October 27, 2020

Art by Timothy M. Moore

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Abe Beame been paid to tell the truth, it only makes sense.

Rap is an artform divided by regions and sub-genres. Artists and albums and songs and verses and hooks. But on a granular level, it’s composed of bars, and there is one in particular that has stuck with me in a way few others ever have. It goes like this: “Rappin’ ass n****, betta do numbers/I ain’t gotta rap, I’mma do numbers (chea).” It was delivered circa 2005 by Jay Wayne Jenkins, better known as Young Jeezy. The bars come courtesy of Jeezy’s instrument, a voice that makes it difficult to determine if he’s a 28-year old Atlanta rapper or a thousand year old demon forged in Satan’s hellmouth; his vocal cords sanded to ragged threads on the devil’s lathe. 

But it’s not just that. To me, the bars took the mask off a genre I love and foolishly believed I understood. It’s from a song called “Get Ya Mind Right” off Jeezy’s debut, Thug Motivation 101. The production is courtesy of Demetrius Lee Stewart, or Shawty Redd. It is a John Carpenter film of a beat. There is much to say about this album, this era, the city both men came from, and the impact this album had on their art and their world. But really, you can stop reading. The formula is right there. Those bars, and that beat.

What Jeezy is saying is, of course, not an original sentiment. I think immediately of Prodigy, who said “Fuck rap-I’m tryna make cream and that’s that.” But Prodigy delivered this line in the midst of an incredible verse, in the midst of an incredible rap career, as an incredible rapper. Prodigy is from New York, and in New York, rap always has and always will mean something specific. It has a rubric, a criteria, standards and practices. Prodigy meets all these requirements, so in many ways it means nothing for him to tell us he doesn’t care about rap. The sentiment itself is empty because it’s such a clever and thoughtful way for a person who lives and breathes rap to place himself in the mindset of a person who sneers at the idea of caring about art when there are drugs to sell, people to shoot and bills to pay. He’s able to feign indifference because he knows that we know he cares so much.

With Jeezy, it’s different. No one would call him a clever rapper. He doesn’t have punchlines that are memorable in the way Prodigy’s punchlines are memorable. They have a quality to them, but I’m not entirely sure what that quality is. Consider what is probably Jeezy’s greatest song, “Trap Or Die,” off Thug Motivation 101. It features incredible production from Shawty that somehow sounds like a buxom white deflowered woman in torn clothes stumbling through a wooded glen as Young Jeezy stalks patiently behind her in a goalie mask wielding a scythe made entirely of crack.

Jeezy raps with Bun B, another on a shortlist of the Great Rappers of All Time. Bun’s verse on this song is incredible by every standard metric. Jeezy’s is not. At one point early in one of his verses, Jeezy says, “Got a diarrhea flow, now I shit on n***** (chea)/Even when I’m constipated I still shit on n***** (Let’s Get It)” And yet, if rap was basketball and the two verses were playing against each other, Jeezy would win 21-0. 

The job I’ve appointed myself here is to explain what is so great about what he’s doing on this song, on this album. But now, sitting here with the finished piece in front of me, I can say that I probably have failed in that endeavor. I can’t articulate how Bun’s classically great verse is completely destroyed by Jeezy’s inarticulate moaning. It’s grabbing smoke; you can kind of see it, but it dissolves the moment you try to name it. So I can’t tell you exactly how this verse, this beat, and this album changed rap music forever, but I’ll try. 

Thug Motivation 101 isn’t a masterpiece in the traditional sense of the word. It came out in 2005, at the height of G-Unit hysteria. 50 Cent had reconceived what a serious rap album could be. He threw out the laser-focused, heavily curated standard that made classic rap albums in the 90s and instead painted with a wider brush. Continuity is boho bullshit for the almond milk macchiato and BBQ seitan set. 50 made conglomerate rap, algo rap. A corporate embrace of mass appeal that aimed to wring $15 out of as many global consumers with diverse tastes as humanly possible. And for 50, it worked, because he was one of the most gifted songwriters pop music has ever seen. We didn’t care that “Many Men” stood shoulder to shoulder on a 16-track album with “21 Questions”, and “Blood Hound”, and “P.I.M.P.”, because he’s a chameleon and they all fucking slapped. 

This is the environment in which we received Thug Motivation 101. There was an expected standard to deliver hits across many demographics. What’s more, Jeezy was something of an industry plant. After releasing two mixtape projects with his legendary manager, Coach K, he was the great Southern hope of two major labels, Def Jam South and Bad Boy, who’d joined forces to launch something relatively new to hip hop: a young Southern street rapper pushing for instant national cred. It was announced with a Jay-Z feature on his debut, unprecedented for any rapper not on Roc-a-Fella, let alone out of the South.

The album is all over the place by design. Shawty Redd only has seven tracks out of 19. There’s Mannie Fresh bounce, a classic throwback, New York-dusted horn sample busied with drum fills that sound like whirring money counters produced by Don Cannon, a posse cut provided by Jazzy Pha’s slightly sunnier vision of Atlanta flavor, a knock off David Banner beat, a Mr. Collipark swing and miss at a single, an Akon production and hook, a Nitti beat that wouldn’t sound out of place on The Blueprint 2 or Diplomatic Immunity, and a cringe worthy attempt at what I can only describe as a fuck song. And yet, regardless of sonic colorway, one way or another, every single song is about selling drugs. It’s wide breadth and singular focus. But in the specific way that it related to that singular focus, it was something new. 

By 2005, Def Jam South had hung its shingle with Scarface, an all-time rap legend (and one of the very few exceptions to the rule I’m about to attempt to establish). The South as a region had moments and movements throughout rap history. But on a national stage, with some important exceptions, those movements were contained. They were not a groundswell of change that signaled a great shift in hip hop. In some cases, like Cash Money 1.0 and No Limit, the brand often overwhelmed the artist. They rolled out products with trademark artwork and a signature sound, and we mostly subscribed to Mannie Fresh, Beats by the Pound, the familiar features and the one or two hits that we could count on in each new release. There were also artist/producer tandems. Missy and Timbaland, The Clipse and Pharrell, The Dungeon Fam and Organized Noize. Brilliant and distinctive work that was non-replicable because the sound and the perspective were so unique.

There were many forces coalescing around Atlanta in 2005 that signaled a final shift in regional power. The major label recognition, national waves of regional movements in Miami, Houston, New Orleans, Memphis, and Atlanta arriving in shorter and shorter cycles on top of one another, individual artists like Ludacris and T.I. finding their footing, Lil Jon’s Crunk pop dominance, snap music, Jermaine Dupri finding a second life as Atlanta’s ambassador and pitch man. It all contributed to priming a pump, educating a generic national audience member such as myself. And for me, and many others, Young Jeezy is the embodiment of these emergent trends. 

In his fantastic 2007 history of Southern rap, Third Coast, the author Roni Sarig laments what he perceives as the death of the region in terms of its unique character. He writes: “The Dirty’s descent into a more generalized hip-hop mediocrity of late is typified by its association with “cocaine rap,” a subgenre of sorts that entered the lexicon in recent years…….. The style also suggests the Southerners can now trade in clichés and redundancies in exactly the same way other rappers do.” Sarig’s critique is alarmist and reactionary, which is understandable. He clearly favors the academic and enlightened Southern rap coming from the Dungeon Family. The book was released at a time the embers of our fruitless debates over “Rap vs. Hip-Hop” were still glowing. But he does identify something crucial about the nature of Young Jeezy (who Sarig poetically refers to as the patron saint of coke rap) and the Southern coke rap movement.

Jeezy is like late Jay-Z in the sense that he’s unquestionably of his city, but in many ways feels post-regional. His approach is unique, his sound is distinct, but he was sold, and we received him as an entity unto himself. He’s not tied to any one producer because of the length of his album and diversity in production; he’s not tied to Def Jam South in the way that Fiend was tied to No Limit or B.G. to Cash Money — and not even tied exclusively to his city. He was a national product, and along with T.I. and Ludacris, planted a flag for Atlanta as a place where rappers with their fingers on the pulse of a new globe dominating vision of rap could emerge from.

In 2004, depending on how you classify Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, two Southern rappers held the number one spot on Billboard’s Top 200 chart (Nelly and Ludacris, with Red Light District grabbing the final week of the year). In 2005, the number soared to 12. The number rose to 14 in 2006. In 2010, different Southern rappers held down the top spot for seven months (and it would’ve been more if Eminem’s awful Recovery didn’t juke the stats for three whole months). While, of course, it wasn’t solely responsible, this level of comfort and familiarity with the idea of Southern rap being pop, outside of outliers like “Hey Ya” or “Work It”, started with this album (You could make a case along the same lines for T.I.’s Urban Legend, released at the end of 2004, but I’d also argue T.I. is a more comfortably familiar East Coast-styled lyricist. It’s hard to properly explain how radical and offensive Jeezy, with his deliberate pace and penchant for self rhyming was to a certain subset of orthodox rap nerds).

Thug Motivation 101 might be the least consistent, tectonic plate-shifting album rap has ever seen. It’s a difficult proposition for many east or west coast heads my age to swallow, but both things can be true. A lot of it has to do with Shawty, because together, with Jeezy, they changed the very texture of Southern crack rap, and really gangsta rap itself. Forget our tendency to view albums as completists and zoom in on Shawty’s contributions, along with Drumma Boy’s “Standing Ovation”, Midnight Black’s “Let’s Get It/Sky Is The Limit”, and Nitti’s “Talk To ‘Em”. If the album had limited itself to that, it would’ve killed many darlings, but transcended the confines of a single album and lived on as an aesthetic/mission statement. 

Shawty Redd is a surprisingly difficult producer to pin down when considering the entirety of his catalogue. He sheds his skin when he needs to. The only thematic thread is scale. He’s James Cameron. He will make the kitchen sink version of the energy that is inspiring him at any given moment. On Thug Motivation 101, that energy was horror. And when I eventually convince a major studio in Hollywood to let me direct a horror film, I will be enlisting Shawty Redd to produce a score. On an album that only features two total samples, neither of them Shawty’s, he finds an approach to horror steeped in history, a compromise between Carpenter’s creeping, skeletal synths and Morricone’s orchestral giallo.

What I love about Shawty is his ability to digest history without biting it. Consider the theremin that runs through “Get Ya Mind Right”. Bernard Hermann used the thin, wining instrument in 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still. He pairs this, in the intro, with choral chanting, evocative of “Ave Santini” from The Omen, a DJ Paul pet sample employed multiple times in the early 3-6 catalogue, or Gyorgi Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” from Kubrick’s 2001. Both approaches have been used ad nauseum in our culture. The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror series loves the theremin (or, a synth with a theremin sample, as I’d imagine Shawty uses), and the Latin vocal refrains have been employed in horror for nearly as long as horror has existed. In the theremin, we hear an instrument that is alien, in a warbling pitch that creates discomfort. In the monklike chanting, we draw an inextricable link between the sacred and profane, how cultish and creepy the everyday ritual we train ourselves to turn a blind eye to can be given the proper lens. Shawty has this way of identifying familiar sounds and effects and pairing them in interesting ways to achieve moods that become something new.

But you may be wondering why Shawty and Jeezy leaned into this sound on the album. Why is crack rap such a comfortable, natural partner with horror music? Why does it sound so at home under Jeezy’s death rattle? He’s not some Memphis or Texas rapper playing at horrorcore or the occult in his rap. Jeezy is just an unapologetic, bloodless capitalist, and that’s……… oh.

The character Jeezy portrays on the album strikes you as someone who has watched two thirds of every gangster movie ever made hundreds of times without ever finishing one. It’s all hungry ascent with no consequences, or remorse, or self awareness in his music. He’s 162-0. Thug Motivation 101 is the sensation of Jeezy growling the word “More” into your ear over and over again for 80 minutes. The album is often mischaracterized as a Horatio Alger parable but it’s closer to Frankenstein, it’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It’s a campfire tale about an anti-hero who has died inside, driven blind and mad by his lust for treasure. 

Shawty and company helped build the most bombastic and realized soundscape for this high camp tragedy. Drumma Boy’s “Standing Ovation” is the most stirring, soaring, heroic backdrop imaginable for someone to go out and sell his neighbors crack. Midnight Black’s “Let’s Get It/Sky’s The Limit” is the most Scarface, Miami Vice flavored 80s coke driven evocation you could conceivably compose despite not containing a single sample. I’d like to think this atmosphere was driven by Shawty Redd and his example. He created, and served as a guidepost for original, gargantuan, maximalist moods that Jeezy was able to bend to his will with his spare verse. It was unlike anything we’ve seen before in crack rap and most of what we’ve seen since. 

It’s fascinating to listening to Jeezy and his cohorts discuss the making of the record, what you hear is a big fucking nothing burger. It’s word salad. Here’s Jeezy on the making of “Gangsta Music:”

“At the time, gangsta music wasn’t really accepted like that. It was like an acquired taste. But I was like, This is what gangsta music is about. You feel it. You feel the beat. You feel the cords. You feel what you’re saying, and you just talking that shit. Like, it’s dangerous all day, every day, around me, but I see it the way it is. This the way it’s supposed to be when you rise to greatness. That’s what “Gangsta Music” is about. This is your theme music. If you’re out here in the streets, you gotta have something.”

I’m sorry, but what the actual fuck are you talking about? He’s mostly just describing the sensation of listening to music. And here’s the thing with this album, and with Jeezy, the further you try to go in articulating it, the further away you get from its power (and yet, here I am. I know. I know). Jeezy can’t explain what that song is about because there isn’t a real tangible answer you can flip into a pull quote. It is an emotion, it is feeling in a way that transcends what rap had been up to this point. It is liberating rap from content and turning it into something else. Consider that over the years, as Jeezy improved by every conceivable conventional metric as a rapper, he became a less compelling MC.

Chapter 42 of Moby Dick is all about Ahab’s specific obsession with the whiteness of the whale he’s pursuing. Young Jeezy makes Herman Melville look like a lazy half asser. On Thug Motivation 101 Jeezy has a white whale of his own. It’s cocaine, and he examines its nature with a similarly single minded focus. On a 19 track album that comes in under 80 minutes Jeezy employs *checks notes* 7,000 metaphors for the whiteness of his coke. It is frankly awful wordplay. Jeezy writes like that dyslexic kid in your fifth grade class who mouthed the words as he read silently. And yet, he’s good at something, even if I, a person who has spent years thinking about this, can’t exactly articulate what that is.

Let’s try this. Here are some of my favorite Jeezy punchlines on the album:

  • “Kitchen’s fumed up, n***** jammin 2pac (chea)/get my Benihanas on, working two pots (dayumm)” 
  • “That’s why I got this glass pot and this triple beam (what)/I tell em money talk, like Charlie Sheen (ay)”
  • “Look up in the sky, tell me what you see (the clouds)/Naw n***** not me (yeeeeah)/I see opportunity, I’m a opportunist/N***** ya heard what I said, I’m a opportunist (jeah) 
  • “You in the minor leagues and I’m a heavyweight/Flippin brick houses, we call it real estate (haha)
  • “So I suggest you don’t play with my chains/I’ll send these hollows atcha, let em play with ya brains (that’s right)

I believe it works because there’s a single minded stubbornness to Jeezy’s flow. His spit is precise, concise. He’s saying objectively dumb shit, but he’s so sparing with his words that there’s a kind of gravity to them, particularly the way he lands his punches. He can make something as pedestrian as “Just got a camera on the peach in my license plate” detonate like an atomic bomb. He is the real life iteration of that stupid Youtube sketch about the guy who spits gibberish in a rap battle then preens and flexes while all the people around him lose their fucking minds.

What Young Jeezy showed us is that the traditional dressing we lay over the idea of wordplay and lyricism can be just that, dressing. Accoutrement, a non edible garnish sweating on the edge of the plate. He found a way to communicate directly to his audience without the flora and fauna of traditional rap cleverness. He showed us all how silly and garish and unnecessary and masturbatory this all is. As he told us up front. He doesn’t trade in words. He trades in numbers. 

Historically, the way we convey authenticity or believability through verse is in detail. Lived in minutia is how we typically make readers, or listeners understand we were in a time or place by capturing the sounds, smells or images that create experience. Jeezy violently broke with this standard. You’ll respond to “got a trunk full of bricks like a contractor” like a grace note in a Delilo paragraph. It’s a complete subversion of how communication works and he pulled it off on a broad scale. My theory is his refusal to engage in flowery prose actually buttressed his argument. It feeds into his “rappin ass” as an insult.

The history of rap is littered with dumb rappers delivering punchlines this bad or worse, but before Jeezy, it never felt like a choice. He was making great, powerful music with real intentionality and perspective, and he was doing it saying this bullshit that he used to beat us into submission using repetition and maniacal focus. Jeezy brings us from an era of Sidney Lumet to Verhoeven. From Serpico to Robocop. Big, blown out parody that is so muscular it obliterates the remove parody is supposed to create and sucks you in. 

Crack is an evergreen presence in this artform. It assumes a trajectory through rap, from cautionary tale to morality play to glorified tool for economic mobility. Young Jeezy is ground zero for gravity’s rainbow. He represents nothing more or less than the end of history. This album, the politics and promotional swell behind Southern rappers and a new breed of unapologetic and distinct, wildly popular MCs like Jeezy, forever upended hip hop’s geographic map. He changed how crack rap and mainstream rap sounds, what it mens, and what is allowed to be both popular and critically loved. 

There’s a moment at the end of “Get Ya Mind Right” when Jeezy goes silent and Shawty Redd’s churning, haunted, howling beat rides out. Or I should say, its sheer gale force is unleashed on the listener. Shawty’s beat isn’t a Wall Of Sound, it’s a Caligula death machine inching toward a sea of crackheads buried up to their necks in earth, decapitating and devouring them in its whirring maw. The machine is addiction and late capitalist racism and the fiends are generations of lost souls systematically left behind then destroyed and Jeezy is on top of the machine smirking, with a snifter of cognac, smoking a Gotti and counting an Empire State Building sized stack of money. If you’re waiting for some moral clarity, some message, some reason for something so dark and relentless to exist; I, and I would imagine Jeezy and Shawty, have little to offer. But this doesn’t detract from the sheer stunning, visceral power of the image, or the composition. And if there is a point to this nihilistic masterpiece, maybe it’s that.

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