The stories that live the longest are the ones that don’t necessarily have to be believed. They’re the ones that, for better or worse, invoke an avatar — the thing we all know. All the best myths I know have origins in the decades before I was born, and have evolved into something else. The bluesman who squandered his dreams to drink becomes the rapper or the ballplayer who never made it out of the hood. The barbers may still be the barbers, and their shops may still be their shops, but now there’s a different language hanging in the air. A renewed sense of urgency lies in the shop’s buzzing. What has changed the least, perhaps, is the myth of the hustler. Be it dice then or dope now, the hustler as icon has lived longer than almost any other hood myth, because the hustler’s tale is often one of survival against odds that are, at best, unforgiving. The hustler, depending on their hustle, both delivers hope and takes it away.
Jeezy tried to be a different hustler. Last year, on the uneven Church in These Streets, he put on a suit. He tried to uplift, tackling a fragile political climate with nuance while maintaining his street-committed narratives. The result was an album that felt like work. It was a bloated effort, where Jeezy’s unmistakable raspy delivery became so exhausting that the messages stopped mattering altogether. It felt, in some ways, like the hustler trying to make too good. He was Stringer Bell in The Wire, fighting for a legitimate avenue but ultimately out of his comfort zone.
On Trap or Die 3, the Snowman is back, very literally, as Jeezy’s trademark angry-faced ice golem graces the cover. The opening track, “In the Air,” feels like a delightful reach backward. “Y’all gon’ make me whip a quarter mil up wit’ my wrist and shit,” Jeezy raps over a stunning Shawty Redd beat, and it feels as believable as it did a decade ago. The song ends with Jeezy shouting, “We’re going back to the streets!” and this, too, feels believable.
The thing that makes Trap or Die 3 instantly engaging is that it feels like a throwback, an album that could have come directly in between 2006’s The Inspiration and 2008’s The Recession, when he was at his most comfortable as both a rapper and a storyteller. Make no mistake: Jeezy is smart and equipped to talk about the political landscape he inhabits. But as a rapper, his money is made dissecting the hustle and its rewards. The production on the album sets a perfect stage for this. It is similar to the production on his first three albums — snare patterns and clipped, loud bursts of sound — but there are more nuanced and evolved dynamics. “All There” will shake the walls when the beat drops, yes, but there’s also a small layering of sound underneath, keys and horns keeping the beat on track. “Let Em Know” is delightfully spacey, the entire first minute of the three-minute song consisting of percussion and soft keyboard sounds before the beat finally collapses heavily.
There are mixed results here, too. Mike Will Made-It doesn’t have his finest moment on “Recipe,” a cluttered mess of sounds that drowns out Jeezy’s delivery, which whispers along its edges like he’s dipping a toe into a pool of water that is too cold to jump in. And not all of the throwback qualities are worth celebrating. “Going Crazy,” largely in the delivery of the chorus, gives off a very similar vibe to “Go Crazy” from Jeezy’s 2005 debut, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101. It feels like a small misstep of uninventiveness, but running into the boring “Going Crazy” after the album’s first five stellar songs feels like sprinting into a brick wall.
Jeezy has a history of albums that are often long, and often with few guest appearances. Trap or Die 3 has 16 tracks, six of them featuring guests. Save an excellent guest turn from Lil Wayne on “Bout That,” Jeezy overpowers his guests fairly easily — so easily that it’s possible to forget that Chris Brown is even there on “Pretty Diamonds.” The issue with this is what it’s always been: Jeezy’s delivery, as distinct and iconic as it is, can be a bit draining over the course of so many tracks. It isn’t necessarily grating as much as it is heavy. The sheer volume and weight of his delivery is all at once rich and overwhelming, like drinking an entire gallon of sweet tea. It begins as great as you remember it, but then at some point you have to slow down and digest more slowly.
The content, though, is Jeezy at his best. He tells some tall tales, surely, but every mythmaker reaches a point where the myth outgrows the need for it to be believed. If a person gets rich one way, and then gets even richer another way, there has to come a point when the money is just money. Any story can hang on the edges of it and sound legitimate enough. On “G-Wagon,” when Jeezy summons the all-familiar spirits of Arm & Hammer, or glass pots with glass handles, it’s a wink — a small nod to the listener that he still knows the ways of what got him out of the hood. “Y’all gon’ make me whip a quarter mil up wit’ my wrist and shit” is less of a threat and more of a reminder. Yes, when rapping about anything other than the streets, Jeezy is often uncomfortable, seemingly less confident. But when his eye turns to the streets, the grand myth of hustle, he is in an elite class. Here, he raps like someone who watched Scarface and turned away before the ending, before Tony Montana fell to his death, bloody in a pool with a globe pushing up from its floor, “THE WORLD IS YOURS” encircling it. On Trap or Die 3, Jeezy is, again, the kingpin who found another way to reign before too many people wanted him dead.
I maintain that there is virtue in this, in drug dealers and their stories. I don’t need to track the entire history of Jeezy’s past and decide which parts are real and which simply sound good on record. Jeezy is, at his best, a mythmaker, in the same lineage as many of us are when we talk about our neighborhoods and the people in them. To some extent, it doesn’t matter anymore if Jeezy is even talking about himself, or the eternal visage of the hustlers many of us know or can imagine. There are some things that we’re all getting too old for, but a good myth doesn’t get old; it just finds a new way to grow inside of someone’s mouth. Jeezy, it seems, knows this.
On his early albums, he was there, centering himself in the trap, casting a long and eager shadow over every block in every hood. Now he’s 39. He is, in some ways, looking down on the trap from above, or looking in at the trap from the outside. Trap or Die 3 doesn’t feel like a reflection on the glory days as much as it seems like a man who has seen it all, kicked back and content on a porch, knowing that he could take the streets back if he wanted to.