- SPIN Rating:8 of 10
Label: Def Jam
At first glance, 2 Chainz is mostly surface. He raps in big Mike Tyson's Punch Out!! uppercuts, throwing roundhouse punch-lines until he either knocks you out (his verse on Kanye West's "Mercy," a solo hit like "Birthday Song") or wheezes through the final bell (as on last year's good-not-great full-length, Based on a T.R.U. Story). The Atlanta rapper has a veneer of effortless cool not unlike George Clooney, having coined a classic laid-back ad-lib ("Truuuuuue") and adopted one of the best names in rap. (On the second try, but still.) He's also become a fashion plate, mixing-and-matching runway looks while inspiring bold pop art from Kanye West's design house, DONDA (which returns the favor by providing him with phenomenal album covers), but he's also more than happy to gamely chuckle his way through the VMA's red carpet while wearing the same ornate Versace pants as Grimes.
Yet beneath the glistening, gold coating is a whirring, grinding engine. For a decade, the artist formerly known as Tity Boi hung onto the outer edges of rap — slumming it as a foot soldier in Ludacris' DTP crew, and later scoring a one-off hit with Lil Wayne as a part of Playaz Circle — before the release of B.O.A.T.S, his solo debut. He climbed to the top of Atlanta's (and therefore, America's) rap scene, thanks to a virtuous bit of timing, but also because he did the work of a yeoman. As Maurice Garland, the city's leading rap journalist, writes, "The crown didn't just land in his lap by default; he earned it."
This is perhaps why 2 Chainz is so restless on B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time. The themes here — drugs, sex, flossing — are pro forma, but the songs themselves are powered by a determination that borders on paranoia. Opener "Fork" begins with a skit where the rapper angrily asks his mother if she stole money from his pants overnight; that smash-cuts into a chorus that sets the scene for an album where "me time" is far from relaxing: "I had a dream that rap wouldn't work / I woke up on the block, had to hit it with the fork," he raps, imagining himself being transported back to dealing crack. Even among the subsequent barrage of one-liners ("I got Medusa on my sneakers / My dick up like 'nice to meet ya'"), the specter of his past looms: "D-boy in parenthesis / All gold in my amenities." The next track, "36" — "That's how many ounces in a brick / 36" — is either a crash course or a reminder.
The hook of lead single "Feds Watching" — "I'm-be fresh as hell if the feds watching" — already felt iconic even before it dovetailed with Edward Snowden detailing the depth of the NSA's surveillance programs; but for 2 Chainz, it implies a latent fear of his unlikely stardom screeching to a halt. Even Pharrell's production is slightly unsettling: Bouncy "Copacabana" keys are sliced through by a squealing electric guitar, as if 2 Chainz is roaring down an interstate. Even the album's silliest sentiments — "I still fuck 'em like I used to / I need to put that shit on YouTube" ("Used 2") and "Let's make a sex tape and put it on Netflix" (yes, Netflix, featuring Fergie) have an undercurrent of impatience. Even if 2 Chainz is forgotten, maybe his ability to fuck will live on.
That he is still haunted by the existential problems of the common man, even as his career continues to ascend, is one reason why 2 Chainz is easy to love. At age 35, he is — depending on how you feel about Drake's drunk-dialing — the most human MC in rap's dwindling mainstream. And while the Toronto tear-wiper just sings "no new friends," the Atlanta jokester has a preoccupation with the people in his past who represent who he could have been — or may very well still end up being. "Sending flicks to my partners in the state pen / I just got some pants made out of snakeskin," he drawls on "Feds Watching." Then, on "U Da Realest": "Rest in peace to all my niggas, that died while they were serving / Rest in peace to all the soldiers that died in the service." ("I died in her cervix," he adds to finish the thought, because thugs need levity, too.)
Yes, 2 Chainz forges deeper emotional connections, but that surface is as entrancing as ever. B.O.A.T.S II ups the production values like a true sequel should. Whereas his last album felt at times like a mixtape in expensive packaging, the beats here are full and gleaming with the fruits of success. Mike Will Made It — propelled to success in part by the original B.O.A.T.S.' "No Lie" — laces the album with two outstanding productions: "Fork," which packs a fat organ riff that sounds lifted straight from a peak T.I. album, and "Where U Been?" which weds pinging bells and the hint of a guitar riff to the producer's typically intricate hi-hat programming.
Similarly dazzling is Mannie Fresh's "Used 2," in which the veteran New Orleans producer funnels the sound of bounce through the template of Atlanta with an array of pin-poke drums, in the process allowing 2 Chainz to show Drizzy how to really remake "Back That Azz Up." Wedged in between those two percussion workouts is the Drake and Lil Wayne team-up "I Do It," which rips wholesale the punishing sound of Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy collaborator Shawty Redd (and has to be an impending single). Helmed by D. Rich — an old partner of Redd's who may have been his part-time ghost-producer — it's one of the year's best beats.
2 Chainz's career is a triumph of working within the borders of one's talent, but that talent has its limits. Me Time's more maudlin tracks — the dope-boy relationship lament "So We Can Live" or the blustering "Black Unicorn" — feel less like he's understanding his appeal and more like he's working off a checklist. With the exception of "Mainstream Ratchet" — a self-evidently awesome track that flirts with dubstep — this album, like its predecessor, gets soupy in its final quarter. 2 Chainz's whiz-bang style is predicated on the human lurking beneath the music, not the other way around.
Tacked onto the end of "I Do It" is a gospel skit, with a choir singing what could be seen as the album's thesis statement: "I feel it's just a matter of time, 'til you people make me lose my mind," the lead vocalist belts, as the rest of the group harmonizes in the background. "I'm 'bout to leave this world behind / Yeah, yeah," he adds, verbalizing the anxiety that is Me Time's undercurrent. Then, before the track cuts off: "You need to go kick rocks now / Meeee-eeee-eeee tii-iime." It's still comedy first.