At 103 West, one of Atlanta's swankiest restaurants, late Friday night, ATLien music folks like Ludacris, Ne-Yo, and Usher gathered around Atlanta's mayor Kasim Reed to sing the praises of one of their own—Young Jeezy. Reed presented Jeezy with the Phoenix Award, Atlanta’s equivalent to a Key to the City, for his community service, including his nonprofit Street Dreamz Foundation.
“I think tonight is all about love and all about family,” Reed said at the podium. “That’s all Atlanta is about... [We’re] the center of black culture in America. What’s going on in Atlanta isn’t happening in the rest of the United States of America.” Jeezy held a solemn, gracious gaze on Reed, nodding. He gets his responsibility and takes it on gladly.
The award and dinner was the kickoff to a weekend of celebrating the 10th anniversary of Jeezy’s major label debut on Def Jam, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101. The weekend was set to conclude with a hometown show at the lavish Fox Theatre to celebrate the anniversary of an album that broke down Atlanta’s singular street culture into manageable bites for people outside of the city and of various socioeconomic levels. Jeezy developed a mission and launched it successfully—this was a time for appreciation.
“It’s like a book from the Bible,” Collipark, who produced Thug Motivation’s “Trap Star,” said over the phone. “It’s one of those pieces of bodies of work that [laid] the ground sonically for a lot that’s going on right now. You have to look—if Jeezy and Thug Motivation was from anywhere other than Atlanta, would it have the same impact? I don’t think so.”
In 2005, crunk and twerk dominated rap’s Southeast presence. It was all about decadence and none of the work to get to the good stuff. Then this 27-year-old plows up through some of Atlanta’s roughest neighborhoods, calling himself the Snowman. His gritty anecdotes of slinging cocaine and dodging bullets set to horns crept onto Hot 107.9 with increasing regularity, eventually slinking into more mainstream outlets.
Thug Motivation debuted on Billboard at No. 2, selling 172,000 copies in its first week. The record went on to enter the canon of prolific music for both the city of Atlanta and the rap world at large, eventually selling close to 2 million copies.
The album acted like a small window into life in the trap, life as Jeezy knew from growing up in Atlanta’s various projects. That style Jeezy worked his ass off to nail—the 808 beats, menacing lyrics spat like diary entries, focus on the hustle—eventually became what’s widely accepted as the definitive album for trap music. After rehearsal Friday night, but before the charity dinner, Jeezy spoke to The FADER backstage at Atlanta’s lavish Fox Theatre while getting a trim from his Edgewood Ave. barber. The trap, Jeezy explained, is not tied to a finite physical location.
“It’s [wherever] somebody [is] out there risking everything they got to make a dollar and it can go either way,” Jeezy said. “They can make some money or they can go to jail. They get their brain pulled out or they can make it home to see [their] kids. It’s their place of work but it comes with a lot of responsibility and high regards. Meaning that at the end of the day, it can be all over in a day… That’s the trap. ...but at the same time, the music isn’t just there for them, it’s for everybody out there trying to figure it out.”
Although none of Jeezy’s albums post-TM101 have come near its tremendous success, people are still listening — perhaps more than ever. Jeezy takes his role model status very seriously. He’s hugely gracious for society giving him a mic and he plans to be deliberate about exactly what he spits into it. “That’s what changed for me because [in the past] I didn’t give a fuck,” Jeezy said. “Now I give a fuck. Because it matters what I say. Now instead of me using my voice to just bring down the culture, I really bring it up... Now I’m in a better position to say that to people because of how I put that album together and put my life on the line — because it could have went any way. I could have said all that shit and it could have backfired in my face. I could be sitting my ass in a box right now. But I took that chance.”
The posh Fox Theatre doesn’t plaster many rappers’ names on its marquee. It’s more likely to attract a local orchestra performance or, say, indie rock heavyweights. The local crowd has seen Atlanta, rap, and themselves grow tremendously in the decade since Thug Motivation dropped. Tickets for the show sold out the same day they went on sale — that’s 4,678 seats. Just as Jeezy puts on for his city, his city puts on for him right back.
“At the time, honestly, when Jeezy came through with [Thug Motivation], he kinda solidified the street aspect of what was going on [in Atlanta],” Collipark said. “A lot of artists don’t know what they want. I think Jeezy knows what he wants. He always knew what he wanted… He’s one of the few artists who can maintain his identity on whatever track he’s on. That’s why he’ll never go away.”
An enormous, illuminated “10” stood at the back of the stage, also holding a full band complete with two drums sets. Jeezy propelled out from backstage to the epic, horn-heavy “Standing Ovation.” The horns, Jeezy explained before the show, lend the quality of “superhero music.” Watching him lurch around gripping the mic at the bottom of this funnel stuffed with screaming fans, it’s apparent his comic book persona is a Trap Star, his cape replaced by swinging gold chains. He brought quite the crew of formidable sidekicks, too. T.I. rushed the stage for “Bang,” Bun B joined in for “Trap Or Die,” Lloyd sang on “Tear It Up.” It was an all-star show.
“I know I said this is a TM 101 show, but I lied,” Jeezy said. The night covered major discography ground like “Who Dat” from The Recession and “SupaFreak” from TM 103: Hustlerz Ambition. Boyz N Da Hood reunited for “Dem Boyz.” The show celebrated Jeezy’s entire career and the city facilitating it. “You know how they say, ‘You wanna be somebody, go to America’?” Jeezy said Friday. “You really wanna be somebody, come to Atlanta. ‘Cuz you could come here as a nobody where you was from and you can actually make a way. ‘Cuz there’s real opportunity and we support it… Our city isn’t all love, but it’s mostly love.”
That love was palpable Saturday. Jeezy stuck with only a few verses and hooks for most songs. He didn’t need to finish—the crowd finished for him. André 3000 sprinted out for a rare appearance to help with “I Do.” Kanye even showed up to wrap the official set list with “Put On.” It was more of a party than a performance. Much of the theatre abandoned their plush seats to dance in the aisle early on. Everyone there was part it: something more than words, more than rap.
Jeezy is a man who sticks to his word. He makes good on promises, like the one he made at Friday’s dinner: “At the end of the day, I’m just an average guy who wanted a lot from life. It’s about your next 10. It ain’t about your first 10. I will do everything in my power to make sure this city stays on top.” We’d be foolish not to believe him.