Jay Jenkins, aka Jeezy, formerly Young Jeezy, is nothing if not true to his devotion to hustling.
Since 2001, the man who used to be known as Lil J has churned out a deceptively large volume of music — seven full length albums, 16 mixtapes, countless guest appearances, and turns in the groups Boyz N Da Hood and USDA.
His records, coming out of the heart of Atlanta, Georgia, represented a seismic shift in the rap landscape in the mid-00s, heralding the oncoming explosion of trap music, as well as a general shift away from sampling towards synth-heavy production. Recording sometimes more than 100 songs for a record that would only end up featuring 20, he’s a prodigious artist with a mountain of material. In addition, he’s been in charge of his own CTE World label since 2001, as well as a senior VP for Atlantic since 2012. The man just doesn’t slow down, even though he’s been producing music for nearly 15 years at this point.
Ahead of his announcement of a release of his eighth solo record in November, FACT wades through his catalog to put together a beginner’s guide to his most essential work.
Gucci Mane feat. Young Jeezy
(From Trap House, 2004)
Though based in Atlanta, Jeezy’s early work as Lil J on 2001’s TUI: Thuggin Under the Influence, and later his debut album under the Young Jeezy moniker, 2003’s Come Shop Wit Me, bears a stronger resemblance to Florida’s Trick Daddy and Slip N Slide than anything coming out of his own city at the time. It would take a few years before Jeezy would develop his own voice as a rapper. The first time Jeezy would begin to show signs of his own style was with 2004’s collaboration with the also still-bubbling Gucci Mane, on ‘Icy’.
Over a classic (and oddly bouncy) Zaytoven production, Jeezy’s trademark rasp and ad libs become apparent, as well as his trap talk and braggadocio. While Jeezy had some independent success with his previous releases, ‘Icy’ was his first street hit and also signaled a career of beef. A dispute over the song with Gucci Mane would lead to a war between the two that exists to this day.
Boyz N Da Hood
(From Boyz N Da Hood, 2004)
Boyz N Da Hood was initially created by Bad Boy and founder Diddy as a sort of street version of his “Making the Band” projects. Consisting of Jeezy alongside Jody Breeze, Big Gee, and Duke, it was considered at the beginning as a platform to elevate Jody Breeze to stardom. Their one major hit, ‘Dem Boyz’, features Breeze on the hook, but its Jeezy who bats lead-off, and his charisma is clearly on display.
Over a Nitti production that sounds like a slowed-down version of the crunk hits that were trending in Atlanta (and nationwide) at the time, it also points in the direction of where Jeezy would be moving sonically as a solo artist. Jeezy would leave the group shortly after their first release in early 2005.
‘Miss Me With That Rap Shit’
(From Trap Or Die, 2005)
The mid-00s was the era when the mixtape was elevated to a level of quality and importance previously unknown. 50 Cent made his name as a mixtape hero ahead of Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, Clipse resurrected their floundering career with the We Got It 4 Cheap series, and Lil Wayne went from Cash Money’s jokey little brother to a serious force with his Dedication 2 and Da Drought 3 tapes, among others.
However, no rapper better exemplified the hustler’s mentality and street-level grittiness of a grinding mixtape artist better than Jeezy did in 2005. This tape put Jeezy’s name on people’s lips, and featured spoken word and a cappella skits, freestyles over currently popular instrumentals, and many tracks that would later be cleaned up for release on Thug Motivation 101 and elsewhere.
Jeezy as the Snowman, Jeezy as the Inspiration, Jeezy as the Street Dream – these personas were now on full display. It remains one of the most important mixtape releases of the era, even if it shows its age at this point. It would also place the regionally known DJ Drama in the national spotlight and make his Gangsta Grillz mixtape series a must for any of the era’s up-and-coming rappers.
‘Trap Or Die’
(From Thug Motivation 101, 2005)
Thug Motivation 101 is, sneakily, one of the five most important rap albums of the 2000s in terms of the way it shifted the rap landscape sonically. While the term trap already existed, its elevation to a sonically and aesthetically identifiable genre of music occurred with the release of this record. The synth-forward, dark and bombastic sonic landscapes that then-unknown producers such as Shawty Redd, Drumma Boy, and J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League brought to the tape were reminiscent of Three 6 Mafia, Lil Jon, and Zaytoven, but were sleeker, heavier and more cinematic.
Although 13 different producers are credited across the album’s 19 tracks, it remains a vital, coherent, and electrifying listen today thanks to Jeezy, who at this point had figured out a perfect formula for success that combined his uniquely raspy voice, motivational drug talk, and ad libs deployed throughout to hypnotic effect. The sound is varied but cohesive, menacing but uplifting, grimy but polished. Simply put, this record laid the groundwork for much of today’s hip-hop and electronic music, from Young Thug to RL Grime.
Thug Motivation 101 is a mandatory listen and the perfect place to start for anyone interested in Jeezy or where the “trap” sound came from, but ‘Trap Or Die’ is probably the best example of the sound on one song: deep, menacing bass bumps lie underneath arpeggiated string samples, and a monster “drop” introduces the first verse. While the song also doubles as a statement of purpose for Jeezy, he crafts a hypnotic melody on the hook that circles around the beat, and his ad libs are the window dressing for the whole thing.
‘Go Crazy’ (feat. Jay-Z)
(From Thug Motivation 101, 2005)
‘Go Crazy’, produced by Don Cannon, would be the track that would eventually help sell Jeezy to the traditionalist East Coast market. While ‘And Then What’‘ and ‘Soul Survivor’ were gaining traction in the pop charts, Jeezy was still derided as a one-dimensional and limited artist within many circles outside of the South (a sentiment that wasn’t entirely unjustified at that point).
‘Go Crazy’, however, features a beautifully flipped Curtis Mayfield sample, which helped snag an official remix with Jay-Z and Fat Joe that would cement Jeezy’s credibility on a mainstream level. Jeezy’s hook is uplifting (“When they play that new Jeezy all the dopeboys go crazy”), and a pre-Illuminati Jay still sounds like he has a toe or two in the streets (he refers to himself as “the Mariano of the Marriott” and talks about how he “mastered Reaganomics”). Past all the politics, though, it remains one of the best and most atypical tracks on the record, and one worth revisiting regularly.
(From The Inspiration: Thug Motivation 102, 2006)
Thug Motivation 101’s huge success placed Jeezy at the heart of the Def Jam line-up, so it’s not surprising that its follow-up, The Inspiration: Thug Motivation 102, would be released so quickly afterward. It’s an interesting release, following the blueprint of its predecessor and featuring more production from Shawty Redd, Drumma Boy and others, but it clearly has a larger budget, with bigger guests – R. Kelly, Timbaland and a T.I. (now a superstar) all appear.
While lead singles ‘I Luv It’ and ‘Bury Me a G’ are classic Jeezy, opening track ‘Hypnotize’ is Jeezy at his most compelling as a motivator – over a strange and sparse production by Shawty Redd, he sounds at times like a cult leader, especially on the hook when he “commands you niggas to get money” in an alien, disembodied voice.
‘3 A.M’ (feat. Timbaland)
(From The Inspiration: Thug Motivation 102, 2006)
‘3 A.M.’ is an unusual curiosity from the era. Timbaland was experiencing an amazing run as a pop producer, dropping game-changing records for Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake, and was perhaps the most in-demand beatmaker of the era. Def Jam clearly wanted to capitalize on his and Jeezy’s success by pairing the two on ‘3 A.M.’.
It could have been a disaster, but Timbaland turns in one of the more underrated productions of his career, pairing the deep bass bumps of trap with his own glitchy, syncopated drum programming. Jeezy shows his adaptability over the track, riding it with ease and dropping a great meta line about his own style (“An ad lib here, an ad lib there / Fuck it, ad libs everywhere!”).
‘White Girl’ (feat. Jay-Z)
(From Cold Summer, 2007)
Concurrent to Jeezy’s rise a solo artist, he’d also been running his own label, Corporate Thuggin Entertainment, since his debut in 2001. Now afforded a bigger name and a bigger budget, Jeezy rebranded it CTE World and entered into a distribution deal with his label, Def Jam. CTE’s existence as Jeezy’s vanity label has led to some interesting signees over the years, with Freddie Gibbs, Doughboyz Cashout and YG all attached to the label at points (as well as a personal favorite, White).
Jeezy’s solo success led to the 2007 release on CTE of Cold Summer by USDA, a group featuring Jeezy alongside cohorts Blood Raw and Slick Pulla. A patchy record at best, it does feature the hilarious and legitimately banging lead single ‘White Girl’; well before Migos found success with ‘Hannah Montana’, Jeezy was comparing cocaine to Christina Aguilera on the track.
As far as stray-shot side projects go, most don’t end up with a track as good as ‘White Girl’ or follow-up single ‘Corporate Thuggin‘. USDA is still active, though membership changes and Jeezy’s own busy schedule have led their output to decrease heavily over the years.
(From The Recession, 2008)
After TM101, The Recession is the best Jeezy record front to back. Released in 2008, it also showed Jeezy pivoting from motivating hustler to community activist. Several street rappers during the era released politically and economically-minded records during the time — Juvenile’s 2006 album Reality Check and Cam’ron’s 2009 single ‘I Hate My Job’ come to mind — but The Recession was probably the best mainstream example of an artist talking about how much it sucked to be young and black in Bush’s America during the 2000s.
From the title forward, it looks at the political climate in America from a street-level view — the good, the bad, and everything in between. Jeezy, though, utilized the record to again motivate his listeners.
‘Circulate’ is another Don Cannon-produced track in the vein of ‘Go Crazy’, but at a faster tempo. Jeezy spits about how to get money for yourself, and it sounds genuinely invigorating. Both sonically and lyrically, it wouldn’t find itself out of place on a classic blaxploitation soundtrack.
‘My President Is Black’ (feat. Nas)
(From The Recession, 2008)
‘My President Is Black’, featuring Nas, is everything it says it is. Nobody does “triumphant” better than Jeezy, and this is perhaps his most triumphant track ever. A full-on endorsement of Obama’s presidency, it encapsulates the excitement and optimism many people felt during the 2008 election, and shows Jeezy to be a much more thoughtful rapper than many of the artists that had sprung up in his wake. Plus, it’s probably the only rap video ever to premiere on a major news network.
‘Put On’ (feat. Kanye West)
(From The Recession, 2008)
The Recession also features what is probably the biggest and most enduring anthem of Jeezy’s career, ‘Put On’. Originally a solo single, it would eventually become more popular as a remix featuring Kanye West. Over a massive, minor key beat from Drumma Boy, Jeezy turns the two words of the title into a drawled earworm of a hook, spitting deeply personal bars about hometown pride.
For his part, Kanye uses AutoTune to great effect on his verse, something he had just begun experimenting with. It netted the two a Grammy nomination in 2009, the first of Jeezy’s career, and remains an absolute classic to this day.
‘Amazing’ (feat. Young Jeezy)
(From 808s And Heartbreak, 2008)
Alongside ‘Put On’, Jeezy developed a successful and unlikely working relationship with Kanye West during this period. While Jeezy prided himself on a street-level, anti-trend style, Kanye was seemingly the opposite, coming from a middle class background and having just released a record that featured a Daft Punk sample on its biggest hit.
However, the two apparently hit it off, with ‘Put On’ joined by two Jeezy-featuring tracks from Kanye’s own albums, 2007’s ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ Remix from Graduation and 2008’s ‘Amazing’ from 808s and Heartbreak, one of very few tracks on that album with a feature.
The all-Autotune 808s and Heartbreak was actually partially inspired by Ye’s use of the tool on ‘Put On’, and Jeezy would also end up with additional writing credits on ‘RoboCop’ and ‘Say You Will’. Though they don’t appear to be collaborating as much as they used to, it remains an interesting piece of mid-00s rap lore.
Collaborations with Other Artists
‘Say I’ (feat. Young Jeezy)
(From So Amazing, 2006)
Jeezy’s success as a solo artist and his identifiable voice made him a coveted guest artist on tracks during the mid-00s, and he was more than happy to accept the offers. While not every feature works, he has a high hitting average as a guest, and was unusually versatile for an artist previously pigeonholed as being one-dimensional.
He was picked for high-profile features with artists such as Usher (‘Love In This Club’), Rihanna (‘Hard’), and Ciara (‘Never Ever’) in the R&B sphere, but it’s his turn on Christina Milian’s great and underrated ‘Say I’ that proved his ability to add the right amount of grittiness to an otherwise light track.
‘Get Throwed’ (feat. Z-Ro, Young Jeezy, Pimp C)
(From Trill, 2006)
At the other end of the spectrum, ‘Get Throwed’, the 2006 single from Bun B featuring Houston artists Pimp C and Z-Ro, shows that even though Jeezy was seeing major success, he was still firmly in the streets and able to translate his own style to artists from other regions. ‘Get Throwed’ is the best Bun B track from an era that features many of them, and doubles as a homecoming celebration for Pimp C, who’d recently been released from prison.
The hook though, provided by the legendary Z-Ro, is reinforced by Jeezy’s trademark ad libs, and his verse nearly steals the show (“I swear to God the minivan do tricks / Hit the brakes, hit the lights and voila! / There go them bricks!”). The official release features a Jay-Z verse, but the video, which replaces it with probably the first UGK verse since Pimp C’s release from prison, is way better.
‘Lose My Mind’ (feat. Plies)
(From Trap Or Die 2, 2010)
After a half-decade of dominating one of the most confusing eras of rap music, Jeezy found himself in an unusual position in 2010. His trap style was beginning to fall out of favor, as a resurgence from old nemesis Gucci Mane and Gucci’s protege Waka Flocka Flame threatened to overshadow him. He had been teasing the release of Thug Motivation 103 for over a year, but its lead singles weren’t hitting and the release continued to get pushed back. Instead of stagnating, however, Jeezy continued to hustle, releasing the long-awaited sequel to his mixtape Trap or Die.
While it didn’t make as big an impact as he hoped from a publicity standpoint, Trap or Die 2 is Jeezy’s last great full release to this point, at times on par with TM101 and The Recession. Like many tapes, it’s overlong and could use a good edit, but there are no truly bad tracks, and the run from opener ‘Introduction’ to failed TM103 single ‘Lose My Mind’, featuring Plies, is as good as any run on any Jeezy album.
The production is grittier and more experimental than practically anything he’s has ever done. ‘Trap Or Die Reloaded’ and ‘Stop Playin Wit Me’ are practically noise-rap records, and ‘Problem’ features some positively cloudy synth leads. Jeezy takes the opportunity to spit some of the best off-the-cuff lyrics of his career as well, comparing making crack to Oreo Blizzards and famously referring to his house being so big that his “rooms got rooms” on ‘Lose My Mind’.
‘Way Too Gone’ (feat. Future)
(From TM:103 Hustlerz Ambition, 2011)
As far as Jeezy full-lengths go, TM:103 may be the weakest of the bunch. The Thug Motivation formula was beginning to sound tired, as was Jeezy himself. It loses some of the dynamic energy and sonic decisions he’d displayed with The Recession and Trap or Die 2. However, Jeezy’s style still yields some successes here, and ‘Way Too Gone’, featuring a rising Future, is one of those times. Produced by Mike Will, it shows Jeezy doing his thing over a heavy, cinematic beat, proving he can still move a crowd when he wants to.
‘R.I.P.’ (feat. 2Chainz)
(From It’s Tha World, 2012)
Released in late 2012, ‘R.I.P.’ is a rare example of Jeezy switching his style up to match current trends. ‘R.I.P.’ was produced by DJ Mustard at the height of the fanaticism over the “ratchet” sound he popularized, and while Jeezy might not be an obvious choice of artist for a Mustard beat, he made the most of it.
Jeezy’s always had a way with maximizing the simplest of hooks, and this is a prime example. The track would go from a random cut on the DJ Drama helmed mixtape release It’s Tha World to a surprise hit, selling over a million copies.
‘My Nigga’ (feat. Young Jeezy, Rich Homie Quan)
(From My Krazy Life/Boss Yo Life Up Gang, 2013)
In 2012, Jeezy would go on to take a position as senior vice president at Atlantic Records, hinting that his career was transitioning from artist to behind-the-scenes player. While he’d already had experience running CTE and working on the backend of albums, he scored his biggest success in that field to date by signing LA rapper YG and executive-producing his debut record My Krazy Life.
‘My Nigga’ (also known as ‘My Hitta’) is another Mustard-produced banger, appearing not only on My Krazy Life but on CTE posse release Boss Yo Life Up Gang. While Jeezy is only a featured artist in his credit on the single, his fingerprints are all over the YG track, proving that even as his name fades as a marquee solo rapper, he’s still got plenty to offer artistically. ‘My Nigga’ would eventually go on to peak at #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US, scoring a surprise late-career hit for Jeezy.
(From Seen It All: The Autobiography, 2014)
2014 saw the release of Seen It All: The Autobiography, the first release officially under the name Jeezy (dropping the Young), and his seventh studio full-length. A solid, if not amazing release, it features more of the same in the Jeezy formula. Lead single ‘Me OK’ is the best cut off the record, a classic Jeezy banger produced by Drumma Boy. All ticking hi-hats, sinister minor key piano, and slick hook from Jeezy at his raspiest, it wouldn’t sound out of place on TM101.
When you’re nearly 15 years into a career, having a unique, identifiable sound you can fall back on isn’t such a bad thing. Jeezy is nothing if not consistent, and he’s always been the best at making consistency sound exciting.