- SPIN Rating:6 of 10
Label: Def Jam
Once upon a time, before 2 Chainz was 2 Chainz — back when he was barely Tity Boi — the man who we'll for the moment refer to as Taheed Epps opened his duo Playaz Circle's 2007 major-label debut with a defensive spoken-word intro. "We back," he pronounced, "and I know a lot of y'all feel like, 'You never was here.'"
Five years and one high-profile name-change later, now working as a solo artist, Epps is back again, silencing those skeptics without having to address them directly. The hardest-working man in an industry full of them, he's contributed verses to songs by everyone from Lil Chuckee to DJ Khaled, 8Ball to Meek Mill, Yo Gotti to Justin Bieber, Kanye West to Nicki Minaj, all while touring the country alongside Drake's Club Paradise revue.
So how did the rapper who still went by the not-as-vulgar-as-it-sounds Tity Boi all the way up until November 2011's underground smash T.R.U. Religion suddenly become so ubiquitous? By this point, the narrative is familiar: Regionally popular rapper releases a steady stream of free music ("constantly, constantly in the studio," he'd insisted on that 2007 intro), each turning a few more heads and commanding a few more downloads than the last. But that narrative also ignores what makes this particular story so unique. For starters, contrary to mixtape kings like Gucci Mane and Lil Wayne, Chainz' tapes, even standouts like last year's Codeine Cowboy, operate less as an opportunity for lyrical development than brand refinement — not that the two are totally inseparable. Listen to Based on a T.R.U. Story, his solo Def Jam debut that marks a culmination of those past five years in the studio, and you won't hear a single verse as lyrically impressive as, say, the work he does on Playaz Circle's "Gucci Bag," wherein he rhymed "Eat spaghetti on the celly with Perelli on the tires / My belly all tatted Machiavelli, I retire." But you'll also hear a rapper who has completely come into his own as a personality, finally fully aware of what makes him an exciting entertainer, of when to drop tongue-twisters (only on occasion), and when to just lay back and shout, "True!" (almost always).
T.R.U. Story, then, contains few surprises, and one less once you realize that its own opening line — "Cut the top off, call it Amber Rose" — isn't threatening decapitation. "Crack" follows, delivering exactly what its title promises, before Atlanta's Zaytoven grabs an old Tom Lehrer live record and, working like a Jersey club DJ, chops it up into "Dope Peddler," a sparse tune that sounds little like the booming, synth-driven Atlanta bangers upon which 2 Chainz has made his name(s). Here, however, its sonic counterpart is "I'm Diffrent" (if you're wondering, that difference has something to do with thousand-dollar sneakers, hundred-thousand-dollar guest verses and cars with missing ceilings), which finds the rapper reconvening with L.A.'s ratchet-music architect DJ Mustard (the two last worked together on labelmate YG’s 4 Hunnid Degrees mixtape) for another minimalist cut that pushes his vocals — and his occasionally questionable timing — toward the front of the mix.
Still, despite the label's ability to facilitate collaborations and create excitement, T.R.U. Story succeeds in large part because of what Def Jam decided not to do. Unlike Gucci's The State vs. Radric Davis, for instance, it doesn't have an Usher-assisted, wildly out-of-place chart-pop grab like "Spotlight," and unlike Nicki's Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, it doesn't have a 10-song run of (admittedly quite good) EDM radio bait. It does have the Lex Luger-produced, Terius Nash-featuring "Extremely Blessed," though, 2 Chainz' softest love song — that is, softest love song directed toward neither a side girl nor a commodity — since, well, since before he was 2 Chainz, but the tune works because it's more of a change-of-pace album cut than a bridge-to-nowhere crossover long-shot. And if you still don't like it, that pace quickly re-intensifies with the musically and thematically pummeling "I Luv Dem Strippers," then jumps up a notch when Nicki herself appears, sounding as fresh as she has all year, saluting her YMCMB labelmates and toying with gossip blogs by playfully calling out one of their favorites, Tyga's girlfriend Blac Chyna.
After a home stretch that includes cameos from Playaz Circle partner Dolla Boy (now going by the theoretically less generic Dillon Saks), Mike Posner (still bragging about not using AutoTune), and Scarface (always taking over every record he speaks on), T.R.U. Story naturally confines its out-of-place leftovers to the deluxe-edition bonus tracks: On "Countdown," Chris Brown brings the dubstep warbles but none of the commitment that made them work on his own Fortune standouts like "Bassline," while "Like Me" repurposes the non-hook from the Weeknd's "The Birds (Pt. 1)" but crowds it amid too-loud synths and too-busy drums. The record ends with the confident and grimy "Riot," recycled from T.R.U. Religion and included perhaps only to reassure out-of-town radio DJs that it remains fresh enough to put into rotation. Which is, in a word, true.