2 Chainz’s latest album promises more than it can deliver
“Rap or go to the league.” In cynical but often all too appropriate terms, this age-old adage posits that the only two ways for black Americans to make it out of the “projects” are to find success as a rapper or as a basketball player. 2 Chainz, the rapper born Tauheed Epps in the Atlanta suburb of College Park (a city with a crime rate 311% higher than the Georgia average), is a rarity in having done both. He attended Alabama State University on a sports scholarship and found some success as a college basketball player before shifting his focus towards music after graduating.
That, in part, led to the rapper’s career taking off at a much later stage than is common in the genre, his first musical release coming at the age of 25 in 2002 as part of the marginally successful duo, Playaz Circle. 2 Chainz’s solo career only took off in his mid-30s, but he has since then developed into a respected figure in American trap rap, relatively successful commercially, even if not critically acclaimed. Rap or Go to the League is his fifth album, and Epps, now 41, still doesn’t quite seem to have found a handle on his niche in hip hop.
The socio-political context promised by its title is largely put on the backburner for an album that, much like 2017’s Pretty Girls Like Trap Music but less cohesive, combines a variety of styles and movements currently enjoying popularity in US hip hop into a distractingly heterogeneous whole. The notion behind the title is only really invoked on NCAA, one of the year’s hardest trap bangers as of yet. Epps bluntly but effectively calls out the small payment players receive in college basketball despite massive commercial industry backing, name-dropping several American sports stars such as Jameis Winston and Manti Te’o. And, while its positioning in this particular song might be debatable, he also displays an amusingly crude sense of humour, repeating “I play with the clit like a guitar” while the beat is temporarily jazzed up with a guitar solo.
NCAA comes slap-bang in the middle of the record and is surrounded on both sides by swings at the mainstream. Whether it’s the Ultralight Beam-influenced gospel rap of Forgiven featuring Marsha Ambrosius, Threat 2 Society, with its Kanye-West-style sampling of old soul classics, or the lazy Girl’s Best Friend, which is so unoriginal (the answer is still the same as it was for Marilyn Monroe six decades ago) that it could seamlessly slot into any second-rate pop rap album of the early 2000s in need of some filler, if it weren’t for Ty Dolla $ign’s vocals, which Epps cringily tries to imitate.
In general, Rap or Go to the League is in thrall to its far too many feature guests, 2 Chainz adapting to the sound of Young Thug, Travis Scott, or Kendrick Lamar rather than the other way around. And except for the Kendrick feature Momma I Hit a Lick, an excitingly dim and dirty track that sees the two rappers satirically describing gang violence to their mothers, the featured artists on here aren’t even bringing their A-game to the table. Ariana Grande comes round to return the favour after 2 Chainz’s appearance on her 7 rings remix for the utterly bland Rule the World, an inane R&B number that sees Epps paradoxically following up the line “I got more than 40 acres for my reparations” with “Pussy on my navigation, that’s my destination”.
It’s Grande’s only appearance, but her shadow actually shines on to I Said Me, the lowest point of the album. 7 rings having apparently reminded 2 Chainz of the existence of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, as he, like Grande, interpolates My Favorite Things into a trap song. But where 7 rings actually provided a charmingly materialistic 21st century mirror to what Julie Andrews was singing about in The Sound of Music, 2 Chainz merely plays a horrifically chipmunk-modulated recording of the original for far too long before delving off into a lyrically inconsistent verse that wrestles with having to explain one’s criminal past to one’s children but veering into tangential bars like “I get tipsy eating red pussy” (they don’t call him Tity Boi for nothing).
There’s also a confusing look at the US tax system here, a surprisingly good Lil Wayne appearance, plus some enjoyable radio-friendly rap like Money in the Way¸but it just doesn’t come together into a whole. It’s not a bad album, really; it’s just far too derivative to make much of an impact in the modern hip hop landscape.