2 Chainz is nowhere near as impressive as Lil Wayne or Gucci Mane were at their ubiquitous heights, but what he shares with those hyper-prolific oddball street MCs is an inability to translate their goofy, mixtape power to the radio. On “No Lie” and now, “The Birthday Song” (featuring Kanye West), the first two singles from Based on a TRU Story (“Riot,” started out as a mixtape track), 2 Chainz swings and misses. And you can’t chalk up these less-than-compelling appearances to “dumbing down,” as was often the case with Wayne and Gucci, who were, at heart, knotty lyricists trying to accommodate a format allergic to knotty lyricists. 2 Chainz’s whole appeal is that he’s gleefully thoughtless. This is the guy who turned Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone” into “Call Teisha” and gave it the hook “bitch, bitch bitch, bitch, bitch / Shorty, you ain’t acting right you need to pack your shit / Talking about ‘call Tyrone,’ you need to call Teisha”; who called his expensive car “a doo-hickey”; whose quotable on “Mercy” is calling his trashy, though very expensive True Religion jeans, “trousers.” The best you get on “Birthday Song” is the opening line: “She got a big booty so I call her ‘Big Booty.'”
The “Birthday” beat, produced by Kanye and Sonny Digital (best known for YC’s “Racks),” is similarly hedged. Way too long and filled out with Wagnerian synthesizers, like other recent Kanye productions, it never takes off, always roped in by Sonny Digital’s strip-club pragmatism. Kanye’s trying to meet the beat halfway and he does better when he simply condescends to rinky-dinky radio rap, and puffs it up into the portentous Christopher Nolan version of trap music. This side of Kanye’s production personality, the one in love with Giorgio Moroder’s bombastic, chintzy “Scarface Theme” — who evokes an obnoxious decadence that seems to be crying out “Help, I’m existentially lonely!” — simply needs to take over here, but it never does.
It’s Kanye, though, who goes dumb good and proper, making up for 2 Chainz’s tedium by creating a clever, Chris Rock-like premise out of this crappy b-day song conceit: He’s the bitter guy, 10 years into a relationship, keeping count of how much money’s being spent and whether or not he’s owed something or other by his girl. In this case, it’s some birthday sex, quite possibly the most bizarre and pathological expectation in modern relationships. Kanye seems to acknowledge the ridiculousness of what’s being asked (even if there is a little bit of Drake’s “Bitch, you wasn’t with me shooting in the gym” misogyny). Consider this verse a prequel; the joke is on the narrator. “Weren’t you at niece’s graduation? Man, I hate those kids,” is hilarious, and towards the end, Kanye nods to Juelz Santana’s surprisingly influential “Don’t touch nothin’, sit in the car” verse from “Hey Ma” (“Don’t be reachin’, don’t be touchin’ shit”) and follows it up with a half-a-zinger, “We in Kanye West’s Benz / Because I will turn you back into a pedestrian.” Here’s the ballin’ bougie big-name star as a bean-counting, obsessive-compulsive playa.