The many sides of Young Jeezy
It's not that the crack-entrepreneur tales from his breakthrough disc, "Let's Get It: Thug Motivation," ever rang hollow - or that his Glock-brandishing sneers failed to sound adequately menacing.
Far from it. Jeezy, 29, claims he speaks from such firsthand experience that he considers himself a "trap star" - slang in his native Georgia for hustler - more than a rap star.
On last year's club hit "Go Crazy," he explained his evolution: "Switched hustles, been killing'em ever since/Been paid to tell the truth, so it only makes sense."
But as Jeezy promotes his second disc, "The Inspiration: Thug Motivation 102," he wants to clear the air about one thing in particular: his rapping skills.
The issue has followed the rapper since his woozy, hoarse-voiced delivery and recurrent ad-libs "Yeeaah" and "That's riiiiight!" emerged last summer as the hip-hop sensation's trademark sound. Some rap purists questioned his songwriting talent for relying on such vocal effects and simple rhyme patterns.
Over the regal horn blasts and chilling organ chords of a Cool and Dre-produced track, "Streets on Lock," Jeezy addresses his critics: "Ain't no [expletive] help me write my rhymes/wanna assassinate my character/ but I ain't acting."
For this sophomore effort, Jeezy says he recorded more than 80 songs and got better through sheer hard work.
"The [recording] booth is easier to me. It's easier to express my feelings. I'm good at the [stuff] now," says Jeezy, sitting in the New York offices of his label, Def Jam.
But Jeezy doesn't want to alienate the fans who witnessed him go from a young hustler in Macon and Atlanta in the mid-1990s to local aspiring rapper with a mix tape buzz and his own distribution company, Corporate Thugz Entertainment, by 2002.
"I went through the . . . shootouts, all the stuff," he recalls. "It wasn't that that changed me; it was more so just seeing my [10-year-old] son, and me having to take care of my dead homies' kids for Christmas. It got to the point where [hustling] didn't even make sense no more."
Rise to stardom
In the past two years, Jeezy's star has taken off. In 2004, he signed with Sean "Diddy" Combs' Bad Boy Records as part of the group Boyz N Da Hood. The following year, he left the group and signed with Def Jam as a solo artist.
If the popularity of his first album is any indication, Jeezy understands how to reach underground and mainstream audiences. "The Inspiration" features gargantuan, synth-heavy beats and unforgettable hooks. Meanwhile, his lyrics boast of material excess, depict the ruthlessness of the streets and provide hopeful messages of redemption.
"Jeezy appeals to the common folk," says DJ Drama, the Atlanta-based DJ who featured Jeezy on one of his Gangsta Grillz mix tape CDs in 2002. "He's lyrical in the sense that he's not trying to put the most words in one sentence, but he's humorous and so realistic at the same time."
He displays that dark, populist approach notably on the sunken groove of "J.E.E.Z.Y.," where he chants "Jeezy likes to drink/ Jeezy likes to smoke/ Jeezy likes to mix Arm & Hammer with the coke" - yet another reference to his drug-dealing days.
"He lets you know he came from the streets, that there are things in his past that he did do to get to where he is," says Shakir Stewart, Def Jam senior vice president of A&R.
"And he wants to inspire people to let them know you can make it out too."