It was August, and the waters and the towels were in place behind the trap house: "All waters and all towels are behind the trap house," a stage manager announced over her radio. Someone called for the Trap Choir, and they descended the stairs from the Chicago Theatre greenroom in pastel pink windbreakers with TRAP CHOIR printed on the back. Then came the background dancers, a.k.a. the trapground dancers, who congregated in the trapground, with the Trap Choir, behind the trap house. In the theatre, trap music played.
If this trap house were on your block, your property values would almost certainly be depressed. The pink paint was peeling, and KEEP OUT and BEWARE OF DOG signs were plastered across the front door. Burglar bars covered boarded-up windows on the ground floor. A chain-link fence partitioned off the front yard, and in front of that, lampposts stood like beacons to illegal acts that might be committed beneath them, which in this case would soon include criminally unsafe amounts of twerking from the trapground dancers. On the second floor of the house were four windows blocked out with the letters T-R-A-P, which would soon be illuminated by coloured lights flashing in time with the music, as if this set were for a Broadway musical about slinging bricks ("Traparet"? "The Best Little Trap House in Atlanta"? "Cokelahoma"?).
2 Chainz new show 'Most Expensivest' premieres on VICELAND on November 15 at 10:30 PM EST.
Stage left, 2 Chainz entered to a roar. Three weeks earlier, mere days before he was slated to begin touring his latest album, Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, he had broken his leg in an ATV accident. So he arrived in a pink wheelchair. His energy and command of the stage, though, were undiminished; if anything, the injury added to the spectacle. He was pushed by a dancer dressed up as "Nurse Cupid," of questionable medical credentials. He wore a Goyard bandanna wrapped around his head, a Goyard satchel slung over his shoulder, round sunglasses, a literal handful of rings, multiple jewel-encrusted bracelets, and enough chains to make his chosen rap name sound like a statement of humility. As he once rapped and would again rap later that evening, "2 Chainz, but I got me a few on."
The ATV accident, which had pushed back the start of the tour, was just one of the trials 2 Chainz had faced to get onto this stage; he'd had to postpone this particular show, scheduled for the night before, after suffering an allergic reaction that, he said to the crowd, made his "tongue as big as this microphone." But overcoming challenges to achieve new and unforeseen levels of excellence is part of the 2 Chainz brand, so nobody seemed to mind much.
2 Chainz preaches a gospel of prosperity, and if a pink trap house is his church, cheering on the general absurdity of life is part of the sermon. One inspirational missive took the form of biography in the style of a personal ad: "I'm a Virgo," he said (the rapper turned 40 a few weeks later in September), rattling off a few more traits before his main point: "I enjoy long walks to the bank." Later, he shared his morning routine: "Get up, use the bathroom, do about 40 push-ups, then smoke a joint." As he rapped "I Luv Dem Strippers," his 2012 collaboration with Nicki Minaj, dollar bills began to float down onto the crowd from one enthusiastic fan in the balcony above. Making it rain from the mezzanine – just the concept sounded like a 2 Chainz lyric.
Naturally, at the end of the show, 2 Chainz's popcorn guy showed up. 2 Chainz's popcorn guy is Matt Bercovitz, a Chicagoan whose company, Berco's Popcorn, makes "Billion Dollar Popcorn" with edible gold flakes and the most expensive salt in the world; it retails for not $1 billion but rather $5 per kernel, or $50 for a 16-ounce bag. 2 Chainz sampled it as part of his web series for GQ, "Most Expensivest Shit" (a TV version is coming to VICELAND this fall), and determined that it "tastes really addictive… looks beautiful… leaves gold on your fingers, matches the ring set."
Now the popcorn guy and 2 Chainz's manager are friends, which means that anytime 2 Chainz plays in Chicago there's pretty much an unlimited store of gold popcorn at his fingertips, should he want it. He ended the Chicago show with a song from Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, "Rolls Royce Bitch," that offers a guideline for achieving your own King Midas–like reality. "Believe in yourself," it goes. "Who else gon' believe in you?"
"I'm totally not normal. I'm far from normal. And then if it seems like I'm being normal, then it's only – it's a trick up my sleeve," 2 Chainz told me a few weeks before the Chicago show. At the time, frankly, it seemed like a bit of regular rapper bluster. But that was before learning how, despite breaking his leg at the end of July, 2 Chainz insisted on going on tour anyway, so that his tour crew wouldn't go without work. That was before spending a month and a half trying to chase down 2 Chainz for a follow-up interview and photoshoot, which touring while injured had impelled him to reschedule no fewer than three times by the day we arrived in Chicago, when he canceled again. It was before seeing 2 Chainz rock a show in a wheelchair, and hearing from 2 Chainz's manager, Tek, that merch sales from the first few dates on the tour had tripled their projections. This type of operation – a rap show that operates on the level of a theatrical production, an entertainer who approaches physical setbacks with the determination of a pro athlete – is not normal.
It's also not normal for a hip-hop artist to break into the mainstream in his mid 30s, but 2 Chainz did that anyway, too, after more than a decade treading water as a journeyman rapper in Atlanta. In the wake of a pair of narrative-altering mixtapes in 2011, he established himself as one of rap's essential players through inarguable talent but also sheer force of will, and a work ethic perhaps belied by the outsize persona he has cultivated on record. If you don't know his "Birthday Song" for its declaration of "all I want for my birthday is a big booty ho," then you probably know its inclusion of 2 Chainz's last will and testament: "When I die, bury me inside the Gucci store."
"I'm totally not normal. I'm far from normal. And then if it seems like I'm being normal, then it's only – it's a trick up my sleeve." —2 Chainz
At this point, as he raps on Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, he's done "everything except a fucking song with Jay." That includes hits with Drake, Kanye West, and Chance the Rapper, as well as a joint album with Lil Wayne. He's also a savvy businessman who scored a viral success with a Christmas merch sweatshirt that depicted a dabbing Santa and rolled out Pretty Girls Like Trap Music this past June with an actual (not stage set) pink trap house in Atlanta, which he then converted into a free HIV-testing clinic for a day. Elsewhere in the city, a pink pop-up "trap salon" promoted the album with free nail art.
"The man's smart. He knows what he was branding it," E Sudd, who has been 2 Chainz's DJ since 2011, said. "It came natural, but at the same time, it's something that he intentionally did. Dude's just a genius when it comes to the marketing if you can't tell by now… Pink trap house? Come on, look how we doing the wheelchair. Just anything that we put our hands on, it's like OK, we're all the way in with it."
"I don't think I've reached my pinnacle yet," 2 Chainz told me when we got together at VICE's office in New York this summer. At 6'5", the rapper towers over nearly everyone around him, but he's thinner than you'd imagine, which gives him a Gumby-like charisma and makes his height charming rather than imposing. He was dressed casually, in track pants, a denim jacket, a white Polo T-shirt, and a Supreme fanny pack, along with the same Goyard bandanna he'd later rock in Chicago. He also wore a collection of oversize, fantastical rings, including one with a mould of a wolf's head and another adorned with a jewel-encrusted snake. His is the kind of style that would look patently ridiculous on almost anyone else but becomes totally natural on him. ("That's really how he look," the producer Buddah Bless, who made the beat for 2 Chainz's "Big Amount," marvelled. "It's just like, man, where is this old nigga finding all this swag from? He's just pulling it out the closet, man. He's just coming with it.")
"I get surprised every time I record new material," 2 Chainz continued. "I get surprised. For someone like me, I still yearn for a larger vocabulary. I want to incorporate it." He compared his approach to recording to the way a basketball player works on fundamentals during the off-season. "As a rapper, you really don't have an off-season," he explained. "So practice time would essentially be going to the studio because there's not that many people in there, and that's where you get to work on your game... I'm not only working on things that I'm good at. I'm working on my weaknesses as well."
Not that it's immediately clear what those weaknesses might be. With his sneering Southern accent, his impeccable elocution, and his signature ad lib, a stretched-out declaration of his name that almost always announces his arrival on a track, there's no mistaking 2 Chainz for anyone else. "He'll talk about the same stuff somebody else'll talk about, but… he'll say it in a way that's more high class, and it's not just straight up 'I sell drugs' or 'I'll shoot you in your face,'" Buddah Bless said. "He'll still say something like that, but it's witty."
Broadly speaking, trap music is about selling drugs, but that's not why most people are able to relate to it. At its heart, it's music about commitment, hard work, and self-reliance. And 2 Chainz is the ideal trap artist because he embodies those values better than almost anyone else.
"I think every artist or every company or business – I consider myself a business – should revamp every three to four to five years," he said. His jewellery rattled lightly as he spoke, but his voice was quiet and pointed. "Rebrand, rethink, and really look at the company and numbers and everything."
Lately he'd begun to feel like fans weren't taking him seriously enough; during our conversation, he bristled when I described some of the lines on his album as "hilarious." He decided it was time to more fully embrace his competitive side.
"I want to be looked at as one of the best, one of the illest," he explained. "And, like, I know that the thing is the fans like, 'Yo, you be funny' or whatever – the rappers they be knowing like, 'He be funny, but he'll line you up. He'll line you up, he'll knock you out.' And so I need for everybody to know that I'll line 'em up, and I'll knock 'em out."
If 2 Chainz's previous releases felt like a rapper arguing for his relevance on someone else's terms, Pretty Girls Like Trap Music makes the case for him as the standard-bearer for rap's most important contemporary subgenre. It is far and away his best work yet, a focused distillation of both his musical roots as a skull-cracking lyricist and the woozier melodies of trap's current incarnation. There's elegance and polish, as well as a depth that listeners may have had to search harder to find in the past. Sonically, the song "4 AM" is one of the most interesting things 2 Chainz has ever made, but the true payoff is in empathising with Chainz's pride in his own rise, from sitting "reminiscin' 'bout the trap, playin' the first Carter" to ending up "in a group with the best rapper that's alive," in Lil Wayne.
"Practice makes perfect, but nobody's perfect," 2 Chainz raps on the track, and that might be the smoothest encapsulation of his whole appeal. "It's two clichés that we totally hear our whole life, and when you put 'em together… there's no way it could make sense," he mused to me when I brought it up. But 2 Chainz's own dogged pursuit of perfection didn't make sense, either. His story of later-career rap superstardom is unprecedented.
"He represents a lot," said Buddah Bless, "as far as, just, like, sticking to your dreams."
2 Chainz says he was "still in the trap" around that time when he got a call from Kanye. "When everybody was watching the throne," he told me, "I knew that the throne was watching me."
On Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, the minister Louis Farrakhan describes 2 Chainz as having the face of "royalty." 2 Chainz himself draws a perhaps equally accurate comparison to a "cool coach." But all you really need to know about who 2 Chainz is to appreciate the themes of his music, he explains about five minutes into the first Trap-a-Velli mixtape, in a few lines on the song "I'm Raw":
How could I forget about the struggle?
Came up in the slum from a single parent mother
It is all gravy, you can get it smother
I'm a only child I used the streets as my brother
Growing up in the southside Atlanta suburb of College Park, 2 Chainz, whose real name is Tauheed Epps, says he was more focused on basketball than on rap music. He was generally a good student and a promising athlete, he says, but he also was busted for selling crack at age 15. Epps played Division I basketball at Alabama State for two years, but eventually he ended up back in Atlanta, selling drugs at a car wash and pouring all his energy into hustling. He'd also freestyle with friends, like Earl "Dolla Boy" Conyers, who were pursuing hip-hop more seriously. They encouraged him to do more.
"Like my second song ever people were telling me like, 'Bro, you got something,'" he recalled. "Like it was like street and edgy, but it was cool enough to play on the radio, and I was really, like, tripping off the feedback." He used the name Tity Boi, a childhood nickname that came from the close relationship he had with his mom.
The rapper I-20 recalled meeting Tity in a basement freestyle session around 1997, shortly after moving to College Park. "He talked that shit, and you really believed what he was saying," I-20 said of those early years. "And he had a sense of style about him that was personal, just him, slang that only he used."
Before long, Fate came knocking – specifically, the rapper Lil Fate, who had gone to high school with 2 Chainz. Fate was living with I-20, as well as a guy named Chris Bridges, better known as Ludacris. The three had started a collective called Disturbing Tha Peace (DTP), and when Ludacris blew up, around 2000, he signed a deal with Def Jam that "kind of let DTP work as a de facto Def Jam South," I-20 explained. DTP needed to sign artists, and their friends Tity and Dolla, a.k.a. Playaz Circle, were an obvious choice.
"2 Chainz was the game spitter; Dolla was like the traditional lyricist. But they both talked that street shit really well," I-20 told me. "They both had really lived it." Tity Boi is all over the label's releases from the 2000s, and Playaz Circle even scored a major hit with Lil Wayne in 2007 called "Duffle Bag Boy," but the group never broke through in a sustainable way.
"A lot of [that era] I don't remember," 2 Chainz told me. "Probably because I think I knew it wasn't my time." But it introduced him to the workings of the music industry, giving him a blueprint for how to proceed or perhaps maneuver differently when his chances did begin to appear. "I still go in, like, I go into dressing rooms, I go into certain venues, and I'll be like, you know, I've been here before."
Throughout the late aughts and into the early 2010s, as the modern iteration of Atlanta trap music was coalescing around artists like Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame, Tity Boi released a series of mixtapes, offering his own spin on the movement with Trap-a-Velli and Trap-a-Velli 2, to this day still perhaps the purest trap offering in his catalog. He also parted ways with DTP and started working more closely with Tek, then better known as mixtape DJ Teknikz, and his management company Street Execs. He changed his name to 2 Chainz, codifying a shift in his mind-set. "He really found what it is he did," I-20 said. "He really found his voice." He had two more breakout mixtapes in 2011, Codeine Cowboy and T.R.U. REALigion. People outside Atlanta started paying attention.
2 Chainz says he was "still in the trap" around that time when he got a call from Kanye. "When everybody was watching the throne," he told me, "I knew that the throne was watching me." The result was "Mercy," which featured a career-defining verse from 2 Chainz. With its triumphant opening – "OK, now catch up to my campaign / coupe the colour of mayonnaise / I'm drunk and high at the same time / drinkin' champagne on the airplane" – and unrepentant wordplay – "Horsepower, horsepower / all this Polo on I got horse power" – 2 Chainz's appearance turned heads. It was cinematic and clever at the same time, innovative technical rapping paired with evocative imagery: "Rain – pourin' – all my cars is foreign." After all those years of hard work for little recognition, 2 Chainz had found himself on one of rap's biggest stages, and he tore it the fuck down.
"I think that was when people really started to be like, 'Yo, he really can snap,'" I-20 recalled. "Look at all those amazing rappers on there, and it's everybody's favourite verse. I compare that verse to 'Big Pimpin',' Jay-Z, when Pimp C's verse came on, and his verse is like the most memorable verse on a song that has Bun B and Jay-Z. And I think that 2 Chainz did the same thing with that song."
When 2 Chainz's debut album, Based on a TRU Story, dropped a few months later, it was a massive success, landing four songs on Billboard's Hot 100 and ultimately going platinum. Although it received mixed reviews at the time, it has inarguably become a foundational piece of the modern trap canon.
As much as 2 Chainz has been a cornerstone of hip-hop's recent history, he's also been a victim of it. Over the past two decades, at the same time Atlanta was busy replacing New York as rap's dominant city, the conversation around the genre has changed. In the 90s, rap's rules were more clearly defined, and the agreed-upon criteria allowed people to rank MCs against one another more directly, in the way they might argue over trying to pick the best basketball player. Since then, hip-hop has become more diffuse, and the focus has shifted increasingly to musical innovation and broader pop-culture narratives. 2 Chainz, for all his talent, is at his best pushing the craft within a strict set of limitations – exactly the kind of thing that determines a great MC, if anyone still bothered to compare them that way. But the histories have, for many people, already been carved in stone.
"[One] type of fans, because they see hip-hop as this scientific formula, if it's not exactly that, then they don't feel like it's quality hip-hop because they have a very stagnated view of what hip-hop is," I-20 pointed out. But, to audiences, subject matter can sell short talent.
"It's almost like he's trolling, to make these hooks that… get it turned up," Streetrunner, a producer who's known 2 Chainz since his Playaz Circle days, told me. "But at the end of the day, man, if 2 Chainz wants to spit some bars, he can spit some bars. He's got it. I've heard it. I've seen him do it. I've seen him go in the booth and just black out." Buddah Bless described, in awe, how during the recording of Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, 2 Chainz would have his engineer load beats and start rapping over them immediately, without ever having heard them before. "He doesn't write nothing," Streetrunner added. "He doesn't want anything that has writing. So if you're like, 'Yo, check this hook out,' he doesn't give a shit. He's like, 'Nah, play the instrumental, I'll do my own shit.'"
An expertly rapped 2 Chainz verse is a bit like a guitar solo or a jazz improvisation; the way it's put together, the rush it makes you feel, and the enduring entertainment value are what make it good. He coins memorable phrases and lands punch lines with exhilarating economy. When he pops up on a song like "Bandz a Make Her Dance" or shares his late-night escapades on "Big Amount," you might not get the same social commentary as you would from reading a book. However, I promise there isn't a book on this planet that will give you the same thrill as hearing 2 Chainz rhyme the phrase "two girls in the pool kissin'." Some might dismiss his approach as style over substance, but the style very much is the substance. It is proof of the payoff of hard work, both in form, where practice manifests as effortlessness, and in content, where 2 Chainz gets to boast about the results.
"They gotta see prosperity," 2 Chainz said about his audience. "They gotta see – for somebody that don't understand how that goes and why a young black man buys a new chain: Because it's essentially a marketing tool. It's essentially showing the fans that, hey, I'm getting money, I'm working over here. It's not saying like, 'Hey, I'm stupid, I'm fucking up my money.' It's showing you like, come on, ride with me. We gonna all get this money together."
Perhaps it's time we broke down one of 2 Chainz's best verses to understand why he's so good. Because of his consistency, just about any of them would qualify. I like this one from "OG Kush Diet," off Pretty Girls Like Trap Music:
Yeah, your favourite rapper's got no talent
Homeboy got coke habits
Used to drive a Porsche till I found out it was made by Volkswagen
This here is a toe taggin'
Tity Boy gon' and toe tag 'em
Go ahead, hook they ass to the tow truck
Let 'em know this a throat slashin'
Your baby mama got no passion
Her best friend act old fashioned
Tell her "take them panties off"
And she walkin' 'round my boat laughin'
I'm VIP at the yacht club
Nigga, you look like you not loved
Stars in my double R so clean I drive in white gloves
Sea bass with the white sauce
Hopped out, get wiped off
Presence been felt everywhere 'cept let me see, yeah, the White House
Space age like 8 Ball
Play MJG, Nate Dogg
Sippin' Quavo, ridin' offsets, guess I'm 'bout to take off
This verse is quintessential 2 Chainz: disses toward less deserving rappers that land just a bit harder because of the grain of truth within, a punch line about a luxury item not being luxe enough, references to murder on the mic, descriptions of women throwing themselves at 2 Chainz, a boast about some absurdly unattainable VIP status, an actually inspirational quip about all of his real-life accomplishments, and a reference that smoothly bridges 90s Southern rap and contemporary pop rap, with mentions of lean and rims to boot. Of course, you don't think about each of those things as they occur; it's just one dope line after another, perfectly executed rhyme after perfectly executed rhyme, thematic segue to thematic segue. In drawing a line from "Volkswagen" to "boat laughin'" to "yacht club" to "white gloves" to "White House," not a single word is wasted. That kind of focused performance is the product of literal decades of practicing a craft. It's hard to trace 2 Chainz's influence on other rappers because "being consistently good" isn't really a traceable skill set. It is, however, a model worth emulating.
"I know hard work pays off," 2 Chainz told me, solemnly, quietly. "Now that's not just a saying. If you keep busting your ass, something's going to come out of it. It's been proven over and over. There's real data out there from people. There's people who have a God-given talent, and there's people who just work so hard to get to where they are that sometimes they even pass the people who have God-given talent. And when you have God-given talent and work ethic, you become like Jordan, Kobe, those people."
A lot of rappers compare themselves to those two basketball players, but they almost always focus on that first part. 2 Chainz knows better. He knows that we watch great athletes because we want to see our fellow humans defy the laws of nature, but he also recognises that the way to defy those laws is by mastering them first, by never losing sight of them, by constantly challenging them and pushing at their edges. A 2 Chainz song isn't going to change your life. Then again, if you follow 2 Chainz's cues, it just might.
Back in Chicago, before reminding everyone to believe in themselves, he introduced a final run of songs with a speech about his accomplishments. "A lot of good albums came out this year, but mine was one of the hardest," he declared. But that wasn't all. It couldn't be, since the 2 Chainz aspirational ideal includes the promise of successes you'd never even thought of. He continued his list. "I can rap with the best of 'em, I don't care what they say." And then, finally, one more: "I'm the freshest nigga you ever seen in a wheelchair. Ever."
Kyle Kramer is a writer and the former features editor of Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.