Def Jam Recordings
Highsnobiety

4.5/5.0

Rap or Go to the League brutally begins with a haymaker to the ribs on “Forgiven.” It’s not only the boiling moans of Marsha Ambrosius that bring forth the night sweats past bedtime, it’s also the bloody atmosphere it evokes; the violence of a friend’s child being gunned down barely past his teenage years. It’s thick, hefty, yet a telling starting point to an album that’s bigger, bolder, and more honest than anything 2 Chainz has released thus far. Rap or Go to the League is a magnificent thriller of an LP, the Director’s Cut of a career that fills in the blanks on previously undiscovered personal scenes. You can feel every one of his 41 years in the polish that the album radiates, his experience pressuring a masterpiece into existence.

To be fair, 2 Chainz has always been an open book to this extent. Based on a T.R.U. Story was all about the come-up… as well as money and ass. Consider it the 2 Chainz trifecta; these vices are always going to be there beneath the glory of the ghetto. The following three albums after that blended the party with peeks into the past, even if some were surface nips at best. Rap or Go to the League treats the four preceding LPs as if they don’t exist, spinning a multi-faceted body that travels confidently in multiple directions, stretching its core to its limits. The good thing here is that there is no limit; the arbitrary stopping point that artists use to figure out the ultimate aesthetic of their body of work is given the shrug here in favor of fun. And these multiple threads connect and weave throughout, lending to the feeling that this is the definitive edition of 2 Chainz that includes his previous DLCs, that here is where you’ll be glad to have invested your time.

Rapping or going to the league. Which is the one that you’ve considered for endless stacks of cash? This impossible choice is faced by many black youths across the world. In the past few years alone, the job market has changed immensely. Racism exists no matter who says that it doesn’t, making it harder to get the small amount of jobs that do exist. So when the options dry up, there’s always picking up a microphone or becoming one of the very select few to make it to the NBA and become a hoopstar. 2 Chainz’ album title is about the hopelessness and bullshit that comes with having to make one of these choices. And to that end, it features basketball legend Lebron James as its A&R, but what exactly he contributed, we’re not entirely sure. But this choice manifests itself across the album’s runtime as an itchy thorn inside the skull. Rapping or going to the league – which path will you take?

2 Chainz chose to bruise microphones with powerful metaphors set to the backdrop of even gaudier beats. The clashing sounds of Rap or Go to the League send sparks flying from the tinny speakers of smartphones when it gets into motion. The nostalgic haze of “Threat 2 Society” and its charming background vocals soothe, “Money in the Way” pounds in the way of blood-rushing horns and hurried drums, “Statute of Limitations” clicks and clucks, beckons and casts with its tribal, sexy sliding. This is a three track sequence that zooms in different directions, its energy carrying through the length of the LP. “High Top Versace” may be the weakest of the electric collection, but even it would probably be on a higher tier if it was anyone but 2 Chainz. But the rapper’s beat selection has always been one of rap’s best, it’s just that on this go around, it’s undoubtedly the best.

In 2017, Drake said 2 Chainz was one of his favorite rappers of all time. For some reason, this came as a surprise to a generation that valued the straight-faced seriousness of Kendrick Lamar and the cartoonish consciousness of J. Cole. But to the rap connoisseur, Drake’s comment held merit. 2 Chainz’ similes and metaphors frequently cause busted guts here and there – his bars are intelligent and you can practically hear the giggles coming from the ends of less serious lines recorded in the studio.

Rap or Go to the League will make you think about where you rank the rapper in your all time list. The words spill into bars and then they snap and hiss, even when they appear simple. The first two lines of “Forgiven” (“When your dreams turn to nightmares/ Transactions turn to Nike Airs”) bring immediate chills at the simplicity of the imagery. On “Momma I Hit a Lick,” which features ordained rap great Kendrick himself, we hear more of 2 Chainz’ sinister chuckling rap. “Somewhere smokin’ on indica/ Fox on me like Vivica” he spits, venom pooling in his mouth. The punchlines carry so much life that it’s easy to extrapolate energy from even the more somber, emotional cuts.

But the entire thing isn’t an empty bar fest, per usual. 2 Chainz takes time to dig into his past, only this time he uses a shovel instead of his hands. He spills about his regrets – not getting offers for university scholarships, selling drugs to his mother, holding guns in his dungarees with gum beside them. 2 Chainz’ past distance to his come-up has been replaced with a slight anger, a need to tell these stories because they matter, not because they sound good or bolster his image. For the first time, he feels unguarded, without an agenda to game the public’s attention.

When he goes for social issues, things get even tighter. “NCAA” is about, yes, you guessed it, college athletes not getting paid for playing while the nonprofit organization rakes in millions. 2 Chainz’ questioning tone works because instead of criticizing, he’s genuinely looking for answers to a mucked up situation. This approach to finding understanding plays into the concept of the album, that hopelessness exists in the two choices that the title presents, but one must deal with the bullshit in order to see the success.

As raw and open as Rap or Go to the League feels, it’s still distinctly 2 Chainz, from its balance of funny bars and swaggering one-liners to its dedication to style. He’s really cultivated an aesthetic that’s been refined through the years to the point that this latest iteration feels like a new beast entirely, yet with a base that has come from taking his lumps over the years. 2 Chainz faced this decision early on in his life – a series of unfortunate events eventually pushed him to one outcome that turned out right for him. But now that he’s in his 40s, there comes the wonder and possible regret when midlife crisis rears its ugly head. What if he made the other choice? How would things have turned out? By using the album to get to the root of this discussion, 2 Chainz manages to have his cake and eat it too. LeBron’s proximity to it can be seen as proof of his wish to occupy another brain, just to see what it’s like one time before it’s all over.

After all 14 tracks that are largely brilliant save for the aforementioned “High Top Versace,” Rap or Go to the League ends. Album closer “Sam” is all about taxes and the highway robbery that comes with them. It leaves a milky aftertaste, its message like soft cereal as it washes down. It’s an odd choice to have at the end of the album, but, then again, “Forgiven” is an even weirder choice to have at the beginning. Rap or Go to the League isn’t about following rules or guidelines and its formula is skewed. 2 Chainz’s latest is bold, yet comfortable. Its thrilling journey is something that entertains, drains, and revitalizes with fresh energy. This time, it looks like rapping panned out.

2 Chainz’ ‘Rap or Go to the League’ is available to buy or stream. For more of our reviews, head here.

Words by Trey Alston
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