In the summer of 2005, you couldn't avoid Young Jeezy if you tried. Between his solo Def Jam singles "And Then What" and "Soul Survivor" as well as "Dem Boyz" with P. Diddy's Boyz In Da Hood, all of which charted on the Hot 100, Jay Wayne Jenkins had made himself known. When his major label debut Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101 dropped that July, it debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, loudly trumpeting the coronation of hip-hop's newest star.
But the circumstances leading up to that seminal summer were far from glamorous, as Jeezy recalls it now, with 14 years worth of hustler's hindsight at his disposal and rumors of retirement swirling around the release of his new album TM104: The Legend Of The Snowman. "I needed some legitimate income," he tells VICE, the implications immediately clear given the narco narrative prevalent throughout TM101. "I was trying to avoid prison, be able to get my mother housing, and to clean up my life."
Scouted by Shakir Stewart, the late Def Jam A&R who also had a hand in bringing Rick Ross to the label, Jeezy signed a record deal in 2004 that met his immediate needs at that tumultuous and uncertain point in his life. "In the beginning, I had to take what I could because I didn't really have a choice," he says, acknowledging that the deal wasn't particularly favorable to him in the long term.
Anyone familiar with TM101's stark tales, its bars made more substantial with a heavy dusting of explicit yet insular coke references, know where Jeezy's head was at in those days. The cocksure spitter on "Go Crazy" and "Talk To 'Em" made no secret of his time in the streets during the years before rap became both passion and vocation. "I put in my blood, sweat and tears and everything I had in me, because I didn't know if I was going to go to the pen or end up in a pine box," he says of the album that essentially brought the term trap to the masses. "I wrote that album out of fear of being in a penitentiary, fear of being away from my family, fear of walking away from the only way I knew to feed myself and my family."
In the years that followed TM101, Jeezy's stature in hip-hop grew, reinforced with each of his subsequent full-length releases, all but one of which charted the Billboard 200's top five. (He dropped two more Thug Motivation installments in that period—TM102: The Inspiration in 2006 and TM103: Hustlerz Ambition in 2011.) Scarcely few rappers of his generation have achieved anything like his commercial track record, a nine album run spanning almost a decade and a half all within the major label system. And unlike those in that rarified class who made crowd-pleasing collaborative departures or visibly mainstream concessions that kept them in the game, Jeezy's uncompromising adherence to uncomfortable subject matter set an example for what came next, namely the rise of trap to perhaps the most popular genre form of the 2010s.
Now squarely on the wrong side of his 40s, Jeezy is still pushing serious weight in the music world. In a week consumed with Taylor Swift's latest millennial pop machinations, TM104 debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, quantifiably proof of Jeezy's continuing commercial prowess. Yet if the rumors are true, it may serve as his farewell to rap, the end of an epic run. When prompted on this, he all but clams up, hesitant to go on record about retirement. "I could definitely tell you this is the last entry of the Thug Motivation series," he says, pausing long enough afterwards to indicate that he had nothing else he cared to say on the matter.
Still, there's plenty to speculate about here. Listening to TM104, there's no pervading sense of finality or fatigue. If anything, Jeezy's going as hard as ever, aggressive on "Look Like" and "Don't Forget," braggadocious on "Mr. Pyrex" and "06" with Rick Ross. The album's first single, "1 Time" puts him right back in the kitchen to boast of his water whipping skills, so credible that one might assume he could be back at it tomorrow if need be.
The way he tells it, though, after four installments in what he considers a unique kind of self-help series, he's essentially finished spitting trap inspirationals. Likening the first three to action movies, Jeezy sees TM104 as their documentary counterpart. "This is the real story of the guy that you've seen so much of the glamour and glitz," he says, referring to himself briefly in the third person. "Let me take you into what his mind is, what he really went through, how hard it was." Even for an artist who named his 2014 album The Autobiography, he sees TM104 as necessary for adequately telling his truth. "I wanted to go back to the essence of who I am, to remind myself that I am who I am because I went through these things."
Beyond any creative self-fulfillment, Jeezy simply has a lot more on his plate now than when he first made that initial transition between trapping and rapping. His entrepreneurial portfolio extends far beyond music, from established stakes in Atlanta area real estate properties and dining establishments to ventures involving performance water, premium brand spirits, and, most recently, telecommunications. On paper, the streaming model that defines the modern music industry makes the impressive chart entries for his albums less lucrative than they once were. To that point, however, he recently secured ownership of his masters, something he previously ceded as part of that initial Def Jam deal.
There's something next level about an artist owning their catalog. Jay-Z, 2 Chainz, and Frank Ocean all do, and it gives them more than just clout—it gives them control. From the jump, Jeezy had his eyes on that proverbial prize. "I knew in the back of my mind I was going to work every day relentlessly to obtain my masters back once I was in that position," he says. "That was always the goal for me."
To that end, he leveraged his track record of success for Def Jam as well as the insider industry knowledge he'd obtained during his time as a senior vice president of A&R at Atlantic Records, a relationship-building role that gave him access to other executives. "As I started learning the business, certain things stuck out to me that needed to happen in order for me to feel like I did my due diligence for myself and my team," he says. Before long, he floated the idea of buying his masters back with his lawyers, getting a sense of the potential costs and factoring in the terms of his existing Def Jam contract, including the number of albums left in that original deal. "I was basically holding my music ransom," he adds, a negotiation tactic that left his fans without a new album for nearly two years.
Now that Jeezy owns his Def Jam discography outright, he's presented with an opportunity to give this part of his life some closure. "I think this is the graduation," he says of TM104 but also, by extension, its significance in his catalog of songs designed to galvanize the streets and, quite literally, motivate thugs. "I wanted to show them that this is how it's done."
If this does happen to be Jeezy's final album, his last word in the format that he's thrived with all these years, he won't be mad about it. "I did everything in my power to be great," he says. "I would go to sleep at night knowing that I put in work."