Benefitting from the implications of inexorable street credibility and its often swift means of building buzz, Detroit’s Tee Grizzley has no qualms about using his backstory—he was arrested for robbery in multiple states—to his advantage. A hopeful variation of the formula that has recently helped catapult Chief Keef and any host of Soundcloud rappers to stardom, the palpable danger in his verses is accentuated by crystal clear enunciation.
Barely removed from adolescence in 2016, Grizzley capitalized on the misfortune that accompanies a criminal record with his formal introduction “First Day Out.” Almost an instant hit, this firestarter was reminiscent of Meek Mill, with the song’s structure building up to a feverish pitch and a corrosive explosion much like Meek’s legendary “Dreams and Nightmares”; in addition, it celebrated the omnipresent hip-hop trope of immediate euphoria upon release from imprisonment (the song’s title is an homage to the classic Gucci Mane track of the same name). The difference between Meek and Tee Grizzley is that Meek’s attempt to turn over a new leaf seems earnest when compared to Tee Grizzley’s complacency within the treacherous and claustrophobic confines of a world rife with trauma (not limited to the hazards of drug dealing, gun toting and inevitably resultant court sentences).
At the very least, Tee Grizzley’s debut studio release Activated aims to extend his momentum amongst a fickle crowd with short attention spans, this being a best case scenario in the instance that he can’t get lightning to strike twice. The album opens with its intense title track illustrating a seemingly steadfast refusal to broaden his horizons. Having yet to ascend past the cusp of fame, his narrow-minded sense of street fiefdom (at a pivotal make or break point in what’s been a relatively brief career trajectory) is a gift and a curse even if he cant see its apparent folly. On one hand, Grizzley’s hardened raps over hypnotic trap rhythms exude the gritty authenticity that only comes from withstanding grave tragedy; but beneath the surface there’s a nihilist’s outlook where a clean slate seems unfathomable. Shirking his parole’s conditions altogether, he notes, “I could still get five years for the pistol, ain’t no way around it, I’m clutching / If I’m ever threatened, if I’m disrespected, ain’t no way around it, I’m busting.”
While Tee Grizzley’s glory is bereft of past or present life-affirming experiences, he puts his best foot forward conveying his bleak point of view in a thrilling fashion. Activated is an hour long spirited joyride with countless mentions of violence, betrayal, and related manners of savagery—natural byproducts of a background that led to his father’s murder alongside his mother’s present incarceration on the grounds of drug charges. With the album’s initial teaser “Colors,” Grizzley gave a rousing tribute to the spoils of success, replete with obligatory threats to anyone with intentions of encroaching on his property. Its follow-up “Don’t Even Trip” made for an almost surefire underground trap anthem as Grizzley found creative synergy collaborating with Memphis rookie Moneybagg Yo.
Though Tee Grizzley’s lack of pretense is captivating on its own, a number of well established features boost these drama-laden one-dimensional themes to varying degrees of success. An unpredictable kinship with Lil Yachty that began with the surprisingly great 2017 single “From the D to the A” produced “2 Vaults,” a song where the airy teen icon shows utter disregard for energy or timing, as well as “Light” where a more adequate showing follows Tee Grizzley boisterously screaming his lawless attributes to anyone who’s tuned in. “Set the Record Straight” finds Chris Brown crooning about the adventurous fast life, a bouncy tune disparate from the much darker “Fuck It Off,” as he and Tee Grizzley express relief over having reached the mountaintop despite being received as societal lowlifes. Most notably, elder statesman Jeezy stands out on “Time,” a throwback to when he was revered as a pillar of trap music. Here Activated’s lead protagonist struggles to hold his own, sounding out of his range over a multilayered production steeped in soul.
For the excess of unabashed pride Tee Grizzley takes in promoting sin, he occasionally strips himself of bravado to show some human frailty. He admits rap may in fact be a last resort on “Too Lit,” confessing “I ain’t good at selling drugs, I done tried it / I’m too lazy for scams, bitch I tried it.” A gripping attempt at introspection, “I Remember” sheds light on the tiring drain of poverty and subsequent jail stints, the only notable flaw here being an incoherent appearance from up-and-comer YFN Lucci. In a similar vein, the somber “Robbin” has Grizzley explaining how he’s bounced back from previously hitting rock bottom, even if the downside of success means having to question the loyalty and intentions of everyone around him.
Sticking to his script with reckless abandon, Tee Grizzley spends the bulk of Activated pivoting between the stance of a fearless, volatile lost cause and that of a cold-hearted victim of socioeconomic neglect. While his rapid flows cater to the much maligned “mumble rap” demographic, he sets himself apart with vocal command and precise diction that compensates when his wit fails him. Though often repetitive and rote, he creates contrast between catchy moments like “Bag” (an ode to materialism that doubles as a strong case for the virtue of resilience) and the somber closer “On My Own” where inner peace remains elusive regardless of his overcoming anguish. Should Grizzley continue to flourish, he’ll bank on public desire to cheer him on as an underdog tale—or reconcile his former misdeeds with the prospect of redemption.