Two of Atlanta's finest duke it out to see who had the better debut album.
Today, Atlanta is arguably the most vibrant scene in all of hip-hop. Characterized by bass-heavy beats, double or triple-time high-hats, soaring brass or string melodies and rapid-fire vocal delivery, the birth of trap music took place in the 1990's but didn't begin to hit its full stride until the dawn of the new millennium. By the time the middle of the 2000's decade rolled around, Southern hip-hop's bread and butter had gone from underground club sensation to full-blown mainstream hitmaker. Acts like Lil Jon, the Ying Yang Twins and T.I. were just a few of the names who enjoyed widespread success during the initial popularization period of trap music. Then, along came two ATL emcees that would go on to become legends in their own rights in the pantheon of hip-hop's deep South. Their names? Gucci Mane and Jeezy.
For all of the recent success he's had, it's easy to forget that Gucci Mane's outlook growing up wasn't quite as rosy. Radric Davis was born in 1980 in Bessember, Alabama. At the time of his birth, his father was on the run from the police for drug possession, a line of work that Gucci himself would be unable to avoid later on in his life. Moving to Atlanta with his mother, Vicky Davis, he would encounter more traumatizing life experiences than most kids his age. After being robbed at gunpoint at age fifteen, he started packing a .380 handgun. Two years later, a violent encounter with a street gang led to one of his close friends being beat to within an inch of his life. Finally, at 18 years old, Gucci was caught with crack cocaine by an undercover cop and was eventually sentenced to 90 days in a county jail, followed by probation. It was only after these harrowing experiences that he began to take music, which he'd considered a hobby since age 14, far more seriously.
Jeezy's childhood was a similarly topsy-turvy affair. Relocating to Atlanta when he was just a toddler, Jay Wayne Jenkins grew up in a fractured family situation. His parents were separated, contentiously so, which led to different family members taking custody of Jeezy on a regular basis. In 1994, he spent nine months at a juvenile "boot camp" after being booked for narcotics possession. As a result, Jeezy would also come to the rap game a little bit later on in his life, releasing his first independent effort, titled Thuggin' Under the Influence (T.U.I.), in 2001 when he was 24 years old. In 2003, Jeezy rolled out Come Shop wit Me, another independent LP that spanned two CD's worth of material. That release cleared the way for Jeezy to sign with Bad Boy Records in 2004, joining the Boyz n da Hood crew soon after. Their self-titled album dropped in June of 2005 and would be met with great success on the Billboard album charts. For Jeezy, it was time to make some noise on his own.
Gucci's lead-up to his debut was perhaps a little less linear than Jeezy's. After that first arrest, he would put out La Flare, an album that was pressed on approximately 1000 CD's for Str8 Drop Records. Distributing them manually throughout East Atlanta, Guwop used the album as inspiration to start his own label. In 2001, Gucci first met up with Zaytoven, forming a working relationship that has become one of the most admired in the history of rap music. He also made his own label, LaFlare Entertainment, in the hopes of making a name for himself in more ways that one. However, after sniffing out distribution deals to no avail, he ended up teaming up with Big Cat Records, the label that had given Khia a shot at stardom. He released the singles "Black Tee" and "So Icy," the latter of which featured Jeezy on the vocals. The two would collaborate several more times over the course of their early careers, but they also found themselves competitors where their debut albums are concerned. Who did it better - Gucci Mane's Trap House or Jeezy's Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101? Let's find out.
Predominantly working with Shawty Redd where the production aspect of TM 101, Jeezy took the best elements of the trap music climate at that time and moved towards stripping it down even further. Using drum rolls, pitched-up synthesizer work and some expertly timed bursts of string or brass sections, the instrumentals don't try and do too much, focusing instead on emphasizing one additional musical element beyond the high-hat and the kick of the beat. Consider a track like "Bottom of the Map," which utilizes the aforementioned synth technique to construct a musical backing for Jeezy that at once isn't intrusive when combined with his bars, but is also solid enough that listeners can groove to it. Something like "Go Crazy (Remix)," which features some vocal stylings from Jay-Z, is probably the closest you'll get to a muddier trap instrumental, with the horns at risk of clashing with the repeated rolls of a floor tom on more than one occasion. Thankfully, the production never gets out of control and, because of its sparseness, never overstays its welcome as a result.
For Gucci's Trap House, the differences are noticeable depending on which track carries which production credit. Guwop also worked with Shawty Redd on a number of the album's cuts, and the straightforwardness of the mix are easy to pick out. The eponymous track is a prime example, with the instrumental moving in the same deliberate way as many of the songs that dot the canvas of Jeezy's debut. However, any song that lists Zaytoven as the contributor are wildly different in style. Tracks like "Booty Shorts" and "Icy," the latter of which would give both Gucci and Jeezy a bona fide club anthem to call his own, seem to move in multiple directions at once and possess far more swing at the core of the beat than the bulk of Mane's work with Redd.
In that sense, it's hard to definitively side with one or the other as far as the instrumentals are concerned. With his raspy delivery, Jeezy's natural inflection feels better suited for Shawty Redd's production scheme, whereas Gucci Mane's smoother-sounding vocals are far more at home against the Zaytoven production work that so often surrounds it. If there's an MVP to be named, though, it may in fact be Zay, who kept some of the era's best trap elements and then brought his own sonic interpretation to the rest of the recipe. He's continued to have a long and successful career that has been predicated on his ability to morph and adapt his own style to that of the artist he's working with. He and Gucci feel like a match made in hip-hop heaven, especially on Trap House.
Both rappers had a little something to prove on their proper debut albums and that common attitude is reflected in the lyrics. In addition, there is this sense of throwing caution to the wind and laying their hard-earned comeuppance out for everyone to see. Jeezy and Gucci Mane were ready to proclaim their vitality to Southern hip-hop's image at the time, with the lyrics from Jeezy's track "Standing Ovation" being a prime example of how they went about their business.
I'm a boss, I got Juice like the magazine (jeah)
And everyday I see Feds like a magazine (ha ha)
Psychopathic wordplay, schizophrenic flow (flow)
I guess it's safe to say I got schizophrenic dough (daaaaamn)
F**k bad bitches, smoke big blunts (jeah)
Who am I to tell ya different? Ya only live once (let's get it)
Following a hook that positions Jeezy's rhymes are "more than words," the rapper gets into a verse that builds him up as a boss who shouldn't be screwed with because his boundaries are so much further out than anyone else's. "Psychopathic wordplay" is still a startling lyric, summing up his bad-ass lifestyle with a little shrug and an exclamation point about only living this life one time. As some real-world thug motivation, it works quite well.
On Gucci's end of things, the lyrics to "Lawnmower Man" are among the frankest and also the strangest that the album has to offer. They also become a statement about where he's been and how it has informed his stance on life in general, beginning with the first verse's opening remarks:
Gucci Mane make a n**** wear a s**t bag, acting bad
Like a kid at Six Flags, I'll send some slugs at your bitch ass
In my hood, ain't no love for your bitch ass
Fifty pounds in a trash bag
Eventually, he even addresses his weight, which at the time was considerably more than his svelte physique would weigh in at now. His thoughts? Who cares, basically. He's got a track that will get the whole club to turn up and, regardless of any paunch, that means you're winning, in Gucci's mind at least.
In terms of immediate commercial success, there's no doubt that Jeezy did it better than Gucci Mane. TM 101 debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 charts and sold a very respectable 172,000 copies in its first week. By comparison, Gucci's Trap House clocked in at No. 101 when it first came out, failing to really strike gold with the music consuming public at that time. To date, Jeezy's debut has sold in the neighborhood of 2 million copies, while Gucci's hasn't even crossed the 500,000 mark. In fact, Guwop wouldn't get his first RIAA album certification until 2016, which shows you just how slow of a burn his career has been. Jeezy might be the opposite, relegated to relic status by the youth of today and remembered more for his work in the "old days." However, both men have clearly influenced how the trap sound, specifically coming out of Atlanta, would evolve and become even more popular in the years since their respective debuts.
Two impressive albums, but there can only be one winner. So, who did it better? Gucci Mane or Jezzy? Vote and have your say below.