Wednesday, September 11, 2013

album review: 'b.o.a.t.s ii: me time' by 2 chainz

You know, for the most part, this whole reviewing gig is pretty sweet. It's not nearly at the point where it's going to pay my bills or anything, but for the most part, I really enjoy it. I like having the opportunity to discuss material that is on the front edge of pop culture, the stuff that is currently engaging people and sparking discussion, and the fact that I might be able to contribute something to that discussion, if only a fleeting observation, can be a real treat at points.

But there is a downside to this job: reviewing albums you know you're probably going to despise, and then expecting the maelstrom of hate to hit you like a goddamn tsunami. This doesn't even have the thrill of clinical dissection or shooting fish in the barrel that tackling the real catastrophic albums tend to bring - no, this is the workman's duty of covering mediocrity because for some reason it has captured the attention of pop culture and even though you have a sinking feeling that it'll fail to even meet your low expectations, you've got to talk about it anyway. 

But let's be optimistic. Even though going into 2 Chainz's follow-up album Based On A True Story II: Me Time I had the strong suspicion that I'd end up hating it, I am curious about the 2 Chainz phenomenon, if that makes any sense, in the way I'm perplexed by how a singer like Future became famous. Keep in mind that 2 Chainz has been in the rap game since 1997, and once was on Disturbing Tha Peace, Ludacris' record label - and yet it has taken him over a decade to become commercially successful, or get a real major label debut. 

And then Kanye West - making one of many inexplicable Kanye West decisions - decided to recruit 2 Chainz for the lead-off single for 'Mercy' off of 2012's Cruel Summer, the collaboration album that did very little to impress me, particularly coming off of the much stronger Watch The Throne from Kanye. And suddenly, 2 Chainz was everywhere on hip-hop radio, to the bewilderment of critics, myself included. There were so many better rappers working, and yet we gave chart success to the rapper who formerly had the name 'Tity Boi', and whose rapping was also roughly on that intellectual level? 

And I'll be honest, I hated his debut album Based On A T.R.U. Story, as it was yet other trap-instrumentation driven wasteland of worthless punchlines and terrible rapping. 2 Chainz did absolutely nothing to inspire any sort of emotional reaction from me other than groans of disgust. But the chart success of the album was kind of mesmerizing in the ways it did not make the slightest iota of sense to me: we had a rapper who had nothing to say and very little in the way of how he might say it, and yet he was hugely successful. 

So this review is going to be a bit different. B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time is going to (in my opinion, very wrongly) outsell every other record that comes out this week, so I'm going to use my time to explore why this guy is popular, what his appeal is to the mainstream. I want to understand the phenomenon of 2 Chainz, I want to understand why this guy is popular. Hell, if I missed something about this guy or misjudged him, I want to be surprised and proven wrong - I mean, if the problem is me, I want to realize that. So, what do I think?

Well, let's start with considering 2 Chainz the performer, and immediately I can understand this guy's immediate appeal in pop music - he's got a lot of energy, and he spits his lyrics with a fair amount of passion. He's at least articulate and displays something of a personality, which is more than I can say about some of the rappers working the trap scene or who are currently signed. If we're looking for a rapper who is able to sell reveling and wallowing in shallow decadence, dear God 2 Chainz is the guy to which we should be going!

Okay, that's unfair - if 2 Chainz wants to brag about his success after so long, I guess I shouldn't deny him that (besides, I'm saving my digressions on this guy's songwriting for a bit later). And I will say that he is something of a versatile personality, at least in terms of switching up his flow. He can handle multiple cadences and paces on his songs and while he is still a 'punchline' rapper, working better in pieces, he does come up with enough punchlines to suggest a certain amount of creativity and to attain a bit of a decent flow. In fact, I'll be completely honest here: if he had somebody else writing his rhymes, I'd probably be able to tolerate 2 Chainz a lot more than I do.

And to continue on this tangent of surprising positives regarding 2 Chainz, I think his production and instrumentation has definitely improved on this album over his last album. It sounds a little more opulent, a little bit more energetic, with an influx of horns and the occasional bits of guitar and strings and piano that do a fair bit to elevate the standard trap instrumentation (which I still don't think is a good fit for these cash money hos anthems because too often it sounds creepy, but it's popular and plainly not going away so what the hell do I know?). Sure, there's little to no texture or all that much creativity in the production, but this is rap clearly meant for the radio and as such it's not exactly going to be pushing boundaries or looking to challenge you. And that's not always a bad thing if the hooks are there - and to my surprise, there were a few decent hooks on this album.

That's another thing about 2 Chainz that explains his popularity quite well, to me at least: he's not a 'challenging' rapper, in flow, lyrics, instrumentation, or subject matter. Everything 2 Chainz has talked about has been done in hip-hop for over a while, and people respond well to what's familiar, albeit with a different face. Sure, it's the same 'cash money hos' anthems that we've heard time and time before, but it's got a modern twist in the production and if you can worm your way into 2 Chainz's head space, I can definitely see why people could like the subject matter, because he does kind of make his constant bragging sound kind of awesome. 

And I'll say this, he's definitely good at calling up guest stars and have them deliver quite well on his album. Drake, Cal1, Rich Homie Quan, and even Ma$e of all people deliver great verses on this album, verses that do wonders on elevating the songs (well, except Fergie, but 2 Chainz tried to get her to rap of all things and you can imagine how disastrous that was). And when the guests do their absolute damnedest to match the tone of the song and try to keep things on topic (in complete contrast to the rapper who recruited them), it can actually produce some decent vibes. So, for nothing else, 2 Chainz has some really talented friends.

With all of that mind, however, I do have a few... well, let's not call them complaints, but concerns about how 2 Chainz might improve his longevity beyond his brief time in the spotlight. So let's start with the lyrics, where there is the most space for improvement. 
I think we can start with adopting a consistent rhyme scheme - forget the hard-rhyming nonsense, but actually showing some lyrical consistency where the verses connect with each other and the chorus to enhance the atmosphere of the song. Once he's mastered this important step that used to be quintessential for aspiring rappers, then we can move onto content and lyrical poetry.

But before we get there, we need to talk about lyrical flow - as a punchline rapper, 2 Chainz works best in snippets of 'wit' - which can have somewhat immediate satisfaction, but it doesn't really amount to the same heft you get from a well-composed verse that builds to a chorus. Let's draw a comparison with A$AP Ferg (and incidentally, I'm looking on Trap Lord a lot more charitably because dear God, in terms of interesting production and lyrical flow I had no idea it could get like THIS), who raps about a lot of the same stuff as you do, but throws in references and the occasional shade of nuance that makes his tracks seem bigger than they really are. Whereas, 2 Chainz might have the occasionally creative punchline, but that seldom makes up for a whole verse.

And now let's move onto subject matter, which is an interesting yet familiar juxtaposition between the thug and the rapper who has finally made it. As such, we get a collection of barely memorable bragging tracks that have the value of an empty box made of air, but I want to focus on the song 'So We Can Live', featuring T-Pain (who is passable on this track). You start off the track talking about being stopped by the cops and I start thinking, 'Oh, he's going to do a song about racial profiling like Jay-Z's classic '99 Problems' - okay, that's a real issue that affects millions of people and I'm curious to see how you address this in your songs'. So in this song, 2 Chainz shows some fear that he might go to jail and he admits that he did smoke some weed in his car but threw out the joint, and the officer grudgingly lets him go after 2 Chainz tells him he's going to his uncle's house... and then 2 Chainz goes to a junkie's house, presumably to sell him more drugs and then proceed to brag about your life again. So, to summarize, not only did you co-opt the premise of '99 Problems', you completely missed the goddamn point of '99 Problems' and made it worse, because you lied to the cops and have perpetuated the negative stereotypes!

It's really the bragging where I find my biggest questions surrounding 2 Chainz, mostly because it's loaded into nearly every song and can completely derail the tone. At best, it's kind of harmless in songs like 'Feds Watching' (which benefits a ton from Pharrell's sharp eye for production) or in 'Black Unicorn' (where, with Sunni Patterson's opening verse, the bragging gains a bit of additional context), but at worst, it muddles the actual message of the song and makes 2 Chainz seem kind of vapid. Take 'U Da Realest', which starts off being a song trying to commemorate a fallen friend, and then turns into just another brag rap about getting laid and stacking cash. 'Beautiful Pain' completely squanders a good verse from Ma$e and a decent hook from Lloyd with 2 Chainz just going on about how he's getting laid again and how he's always winning. 

And this is always an issue I run into when you have rappers bragging about how loaded they are now, and yet continuing rapping about selling drugs - simple question, why the hell are you continuing to sell drugs and live an obviously dangerous lifestyle when you don't need the money anymore? I get the message that 'you're only doing what you do so you can live', and you're trying to have a song that could relate to your fans' experiences, but here's my point, 2 Chainz: if you're trying to relate to the emotions of your audience, then why do you fill every one of your songs with disses directed at a nebulous 'you'. And since you never name names of who you might be feuding with, the natural presumption is that the 'you' is aimed at the audience (likely your haters, but you never make a distinction) - so with that in mind, why on earth would I like a song where it sounds like I'm being dissed for not liking your material? On songs like 'Where U Been' where you're 'singing' 'I bought a new crib just to fuck you in' - are you talking to me or to your haters or to your girls? I'm confused, 2 Chainz, I don't swing that way. And sure, I get it, you've been in the game a long time and you probably don't want to have to deal with haters now, but lines like 'I hope you get testicular cancer in the brain' with no clarification of who the 'you' is... classy, dude.

And this is just a little thing, but why on earth do you shout out your name so often on your album, like you're Jason Derulo or Falling In Reverse (if you're curious who that group is, don't look them up, they're terrible)? Are you so concerned that we're going to forget your material that you constantly need to identify yourself - even though we already bought your album?

But, despite all this, I would be wrong not to mention that the final track of the standard edition of this album, 'Outroduction', is actually pretty good. Yeah, it's one of those 'more money, more problems' songs that rappers put out, but I actually thought 2 Chainz did a surprisingly good job balancing his bragging with the real consequences of his new lifestyle - if only the rest of his album had anywhere close to that level of insight or justified the subtitle of 'Me Time'! The thing is, the entire album is 'me time' for 2 Chainz, where he talks primarily about himself and outside of a few punchlines that aren't bad, he starts running out of material or just gets obnoxious. 'Outroduction' is the best song on the album, but I'm listening to it and thinking, 'Man, it actually sounds like 2 Chainz is trying on this track, why on earth am I only hearing this sort of effort now?'

In the end, I don't hate 2 Chainz's B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time, because that would imply there's enough substance on this album to hate. I understand why he's popular now - pretty much the same reason Soulja Boy was popular (although, to be fair, 2 Chainz is a better rapper than Soulja Boy ever will be), and really, as a pop music fan, the fact I can't find enough even among shallow material to really get enthused about is really saying something. What's most disappointing is that there are flashes of 2 Chainz's potential, and he is improving since his last album, and while this album isn't anything close to good, I get the frustrating feeling that it could have been at least passable. If you're looking for rap music in this vein, though, I recommend you check out someone else - hell, give A$AP Ferg a chance, his album was better than this.

As it is, I'd skip this one. I get why 2 Chainz is popular now - but I also know he'll soon be forgotten.

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