According to ESPN, Tauheed Epps, known professionally as 2 Chainz, was an accomplished high school basketball player who was recruited at the D1 level and eventually played a full season for Alabama State University. But because he lacked the athletic ability to have a legitimate shot at the league and instead held an unapologetic talent for wordplay, he made the decision to rap. (He is not the only rapper who was a star basketball player — J. Cole also had a fantastic high school career). The title of his newest album “Rap or Go to the League,” released this past Friday, refers more to the intersection of hip hop culture and professional athletics. Rap music today is replete with references to sports, most famously exemplified by Jay-Z’s boast in the song “Empire State of Mind:” “If Jeezy’s paying Lebron, I’m paying Dwyane Wade.” Musicians and athletes feed off each other in pop culture; they party together, and athletes play their music during games and practices. As former NBA MVP Kevin Durant once said in an interview, getting name-dropped in a song “makes you feel like you made it.” 2 Chainz takes this relationship to the next level on “Rap or Go to the League,” bringing in LeBron James to do help pick the songs that made it onto the album as well as the featured artists.
In an interview with the radio show The Breakfast Club, 2 Chainz said, “I wanted to show people that they can do more than just have a wicked crossover or be able to hold certain notes … On this album I tried to teach a bit more, tried to have a little more substance, more concepts, cause I love concepts. ‘Rap Or Go To The League’ was almost like ‘clickbait.’” This is one of the first times in recent memory that I’ve read a substantive quote from an artist about his album. 2 Chainz’s work is more conceptual, and he plays around with multiple styles. On some songs on the album, it works well, but other times his experimental style fails miserably. The best way to deconstruct this album is to look at it song by song and mention some of the highlights and lowlights. Let’s start with the ones to avoid first.
“2 Dollar Bill” is the most disappointing song in the whole project. When listeners see Lil Wayne and E-40 featuring on a 2 Chainz song, they rightfully expect this group, three of the punniest and most creative rappers of this generation, to leave them marveling at the musicians’ wordplay. Instead, we are left insipid verses and forced to hear E-40 struggle to rap “Rare like wagyu steak, rare like 88 Polaroid pictures,” as well as an uninspired chorus of 2 Chainz repeating “I’m rare, I’m rare.” Sorry, LeBron. Just like in basketball, you can’t expect to throw a few big names on a roster and have the song work with no effort.
“Statute of Limitations” also falls short. The bass-heavy beat with mixed-in piano is jumbled and unpleasant to listen to. The first few verses feature some catchy rhymes, but listeners are then forced to hear lines like “Ex-drug dealer, ex-athlete / Used to take people’s girls with me.”
“I Said Me” features decent verses but functions as a case study in sampling gone wrong. The main beat of the song is solid on its own and seems like a remixed version of Jay-Z’s “Dead Presidents II.” However, at the beginning of the song, and interspersed throughout it, producer 30 Roc includes a sample from the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein song “My Favorite Things,” as sung by Julie Andrews in the 1965 musical “The Sound of Music.” This cannot be overlooked; it kills the song. Instead of a haunting and heavy insight into the life of a former drug dealer (“12th grade I got locked up for possession / I tried to call God but he wouldn’t answer), “I Said Me” is a sonically confused mess.
Despite the presence of some of the disappointing songs on the album, many highlights remain. “Threat 2 Society” might be the best song in the album, although this is likely an unpopular opinion. It’s a decidedly un-2 Chainz-like song, employing a soulful vocal sample from The Truthettes’ 1980 song “So Good To Be Alive.” “Money in the Way” is an upbeat song, and the listener can tell they are in for a fun ride when in the first verses, 2 Chainz raps, “Psychedelic flow, I’m the dope and the antidote / Fade down the street from the pocket store, what you know?”
“Girl’s Best Friend” is a classic 2 Chainz and Ty Dolla $ign collaboration — a speaker-rattling, easy-playing bedroom anthem.“Rule the World” follows the “7 Rings” remix as another successful shared work between 2 Chainz and Ariana Grande. 2 Chainz’s dry humor and deep, slow drawl complements Grande’s melodical voice. Overall, “Rap or Go to the League” is a successful project. Despite some of its flaws, the majority of its songs redeems the album with a range of different styles and (mostly) quality features. Despite being on the wrong side of 40, 2 Chainz is still making well-crafted music.