Pants and coats, hats and hoodies peppered my living room floor and table, discarded remnants of the day’s outfit options that had come and gone. On any other morning, each discarded fit would have been perfect for my daily pilgrimage to the library. But today was different. In three hours I was set to meet 2 Chainz.
This sartorial indecision was born not of trying to top, or even to impress, 2 Chainz. It was merely out of respect, like removing your hat at the dinner table or saying “yes ma’am” when speaking to someone named Brenda. Additionally, it was because I’d logged so many hours thinking about and writing about Mister Tity 2 Necklace.
There were 18 consecutive months, stretching over 2012 and 2013, when Chainz was a bona fide cultural phenomenon. And in those 18 months, I felt as if it were my duty to write about every move he made, because he was different. There was the curiosity over the name change from Tity Boi to 2 Chainz; there was the revelation that he played college basketball; and there was the question of when his Bentley truck would arrive. There were two studio albums, Based on a T.R.U. Story and B.O.A.T.S. II: #METIME, his tour bus cookbook, #MEALTIME, in which he instructed recipe readers to first “Put your Versace apron on,” and the dance he did behind Nicki Minaj in the “Beez in the Trap” video.
And, not to be overlooked, there was the computer game he put out with Adidas and Champs with a plot (still unclear) in which someone steals his chains on the blacktop and he essentially becomes Sonic the Traphog in search of his jewelry. Also in the liner notes of his debut album, in one line—Line 11—he thanked “LeBron James, Versace, Louis V, Gucci, Shots, ESPN’s First Take Staff and Crew” notably (to me, and only me) four lines before “Kanye” and 32 lines before “Steve Jackson (Spurs).”
I chronicled 2 Chainz with fervor, because I was secretly worried the Chainz Train would ultimately stop. But as I sat in a converted Washington Heights bodega, three days before the release of his fifth studio album, Rap or Go to the League, waiting for him to tape a performance for the new Desus & Mero on Showtime, it was another reminder of how beloved he remains. Not as a punch lines MC on your favorite rapper’s songs, but as a cultural figure and as an artist. 2 Chainz might be your favorite rapper. He might be LeBron’s, too.
Yes, it has been revealed that the Lakers star is an official A&R for the album, with both men posting Instagrams of themselves in the studio together. But I’ll let Chainz talk about that, later.
This winter, I had one style goal: find a statement coat. I began reaching out to friends who know things about high fashion, telling them my dreams. They steered me toward sleek outerwear of various hues and prices. And a few days after my hopeful new life began, I walked into a thrift store and minutes later left with a women’s large raspberry L.L. Bean trench coat seemingly built specifically for my body sculpt.
I proudly wore this coat, as well as five rings spread over two pinkies, two indexes, and a right ring finger, as I turned around in my chair to see 2 Chainz enter the bodega.
I’ve always thought that 2 Chainz in a Stetson hat looked like a tall Diane Keaton. Today was one of those days, with one exception: his coat. It was white, it was fur, it was voluptuous, and it was at least 6 feet long. As he walked to greet Desus and Mero, my coat hissed at me, furious that I would put her in such an embarrassing situation. As for his fingers, they, too, were filled with rings. But as he prepared to perform, he looked like he had won six Super Bowls. And mine? I looked down and two were covered in marinara.
Between takes of his performance of “Money in the Way,” he seemed to be pacing himself, recharging his battery. When the cameras turned off, he seemed to shrink down to life-size. It’s what you’d expect from a veteran artist who has been in the public eye for almost 20 years, who has trained for the day by day. That low-key, high-charisma energy only intensified as I followed him out of the shoot and into his Sprinter van. I asked him if he wanted some time to chill before we started talking—he’d just sparked one up and hadn’t taken off his fur, hat, or shades, after all.
“I’m ready, bruh.”
I remember listening to you on a DTP collaboration album in ‘02 when I was in high school. And now it’s 2019. You’ve had a long career, one people often gloss over. So I wanted to start early, more than a decade ago, after “Duffle Bag Boy” but before you went solo with “Spend It.” There’s a few years when you weren’t on many people’s radar, and then suddenly you were.
I never took any time off—I think that’s the biggest misconception with people, whether I was on the radar or under the radar, I put out seven mixtapes before I put out “Spend It.” “Spend It” was on my seventh solo mixtape. I put out two full albums with Playaz Circle as a group. And I had features here and there, not as much as I do now, but I started doing a lot of features in the Atlanta area on my last mixtape.
So for me, sometimes, I like to let people know that it took close to 10 years to be an overnight success. That’s just what it is. A lot of people these days have a little bit of a—I think it’s a form of a cheat sheet nowadays with so much information on how to do it yourself and how to be this and do that.
Like getting rich quick?
It’s just so much information on how to do certain things. You can literally YouTube how to cook, change a tire, do hair, makeup.
I did that for a leaking pipe in my house, yesterday.
See? Isn’t that something? Just think, YouTube essentially can take your parent’s place, you know what I mean? And for me, my father wasn’t there so I missed out on changing tires and changing oil. I missed out on actually having to mow the lawn, predominantly because I stayed in an apartment complex for the majority of my life. But these are the things that, often “men” are supposed to know how to do. Now I know how to cook because I had to feed myself sometimes. But growing up, I didn’t have accessibility to Google like that, there was no how-to like that, so I had to learn it through the streets.
One thing I learned through the streets is that a slow roll is better than no roll, right? I learned that something is better than nothing. So I would put out music and it wasn’t like I was actually getting booked, but I was creating, and it was treading water for me. It was starting to make waves for me. For the longest, my goal was to get a fan a day. And sometimes it was that I was one song away because I was recording every day. As an entertainer, you’re always one thing away. I always knew that I was.
So, when all the stars aligned, when God seen it was fit to give me this reward, it was around “Spend It”—riding around and gettin’ it—but I’d had a song called “Boo.” I just called it “Boo.” I ended up buying a tour bus off some of these records. I bought a tour bus before I had a record deal because I just ate the Chitlin’ Circuit up. I made over $1 million doing the Chitlin’ Circuit. So I understood how local artists could be so rich and successful in the small area because the South really takes care of their artists.
During this time, were there people you saw doing it, who you thought, Wow, they’ve got it figured out?
I thought about every artist ahead of me, and I just felt like I had to connect the dots some kind of way with the fans. I didn’t know how to do it. I’m not afraid to study other people, so I did. I studied them all, the Guccis, the Jeezys, the T.I.s, the Ludas—whoever was successful in Atlanta, the Organized Noizes, I was even studying the groups, even the ones that weren’t so successful, I tried to study them and figure out how to connect the dots, what DJs were pushing the right buttons, who and what, and when was the right place to be, you know?
These are all the things that I strategically did because I wanted to be great, the next big thing. This sounds crazy, and it sounds like a bunch of bullshit because I’m successful now, but I never, ever thought that I was not going to be successful my whole life. Never.
How have you improved? People throw around the term “album artist” but what are the changes you’ve seen in you, and what things would you still like to work on?
I just wanna learn a lot about music. I’m learning the engineering thing, I’m working a little more on the engineering side. I’d like to get more into melodies. I like to learn things.
You’ve always struck me as a curious person.
I can be. And it can be a good thing. But some people can get curious and nosiness mixed up. I’ve had neighbors that be in all of my damn business and they would call themselves curious, but I would say they nosy. I would say I love to mind my own business, that’s what got me here. I mind my own business, I don’t care about who got broken up with and did what, who pregnant. I don’t care ... I can’t believe this many people care about other people that have nothing to do with them.
That has never been me. I have such an awesome life that I care about that life. I think I have a really cool life. I think my kids are very beautiful and smart. My wife is great and my mama is cool as hell. I think my life is definitely like probably the first reality show that hadn’t been televised because of how I live, how I came up. It probably sounds like a myth or a fairy tale. So for me, I’m actually thankful for the ups and the downs that make me who I am today.
One thing to that point: I would never describe you as “normal” because you don’t live a normal life, but I do find you to be accessible. One time, a few years ago, my mom picked me up from the airport. And she took me to that place on the Southside, Simon’s Steak and Seafood. We were just chatting and you came in with your family—
My kids go to school down there.
We were sitting in the corner and watched the whole staff come up to you. My mom, who doesn’t know much about your music, was like, “People really like that guy.” How important is it to be comfortable in your own home?
I think you gotta remain humble. I tell myself that a lot of times. Sometimes, we wanna take it up a notch. We wanna turn into this other person because we worked so hard to not stay the same, so I get it. But I think you gotta treat the valet person like you treat the owner of the spot. That’s just my morals, I just don’t shit on people. That’s just kind of like it. Now, I can’t say I’m perfect and that I don’t talk about people, but like shitting on people? I just don’t think it’s healthy or cool for the ecosystem, so that’s not me. Now, I’ve been shitted on and I can say some instances now where I feel like sometimes people might try to shit on me, but I’m unshittable, obviously. So for the most part, the common denominator is staying in my lane.
Do you find that there are certain people or certain places that keep you grounded?
I don’t go anywhere where I lose touch of where I come from. Meaning, I don’t leave Atlanta for long periods of time. I don’t do that. I go back to Atlanta because that’s where the ground is for me and that pretty much helps me be grounded. Now I can go out the country, I can go to New York, L.A. And I can take things back, whether it be conversation, game, knowledge, medicinal, whatever it is, you know what I’m saying? But Atlanta is where the ground is for me, so it’s very important I touch my roots right there. I try not to get too out the box.
Are there some things about Atlanta that have helped it continue to be the pulse of popular music and hip-hop for almost two decades now?
I like evolution. … I’m happy to be from there, I’m happy to be one of the people that carried the torch. Just go back only as far as Lil Jon. And then you got your Ludas and your T.I.s and then you got Jeezys and Guccis and then you got myself and Future and then you got your Thuggers, and then you got your Lil Babys and your Gunnas all the way down to even Lil Keed.
The thing about Atlanta—nobody is dropping the torch. And I don’t think anybody wants to be responsible for dropping the torch, right? It’s not supposed to happen, so that’s why we consistently be on top and the people that carry the torch, they don’t get too bougie, they don’t get the big head, they pay homage. They rock with the previous torch carriers and so on and so forth, and that is the secret to the success of Atlanta.
People might come out with some crazy shit and you take a minute to digest it, but then we plug up to it. And we say, “OK, we riding with it.” And sometimes we mix it all up. C’mon man, our city is full of yesterday, today, and tomorrow’s stars.
I think it’s always been the artists supporting each other. You can just look at the way people hop on each other’s songs. It doesn’t feel like this nasty, competitive thing. As long as we’re all killing it, the city is still gonna matter.
We can all go shopping.
True. You made one of the better songs and videos of last year, with “Proud.” Like you, I’m the only son of a single mother in Atlanta, so clearly this meant a lot to me. But it also made me think about that adult family dynamic, between a mother and a son, who grew up so close.
We’ve shared a one-bedroom together, I don’t think we can get much closer than that.
Exactly. I’ve gone through some hard moments with my mother and over time you realize there’s some stuff that gets easier to talk about, some shit that we might still not be ready to get into.
Me and my mama ... she’s not good with that. My mom has a very strong personality and she gets frustrated fast and she’s obviously been through a lot. It’s just different, you know? The love is there, we talk ... we used to talk every, every single day. Sometimes we don’t talk every day, but I try to do things to make her life much easier and extend her quality of life, I do whatever I can. Obviously with the monetary side but just speaking from me, it’s always some things that will be in the shadows, I think. It’s just … pain. And sometimes people like to keep it packed in the trunk, you know.
I get it. So with this album, what were some highlights when it comes to the process? Some things that felt new on this, your fifth studio album.
I’m excited about it because I have so many things to bring to the table and I’m one of the few people that can work with some of everybody. I can work with somebody on the East Coast like a De La Soul and then somebody on the West Coast like a YG. And then somebody in the South like a Lil Baby. I’m able to work with all these people. I’m able to be myself on all these tracks, even if you bump it up to a pop-star type of thing, an Ariana Grande or something like that, I’m able to adjust, fit in, and actually be myself on all of these things.
So in this album, it was therapeutic to get some things out that were maybe packed in the trunk that I talked about as far as the painful side. With the title of the album, Rap or Go to the League, it’s more of an audiobook type of vibe. It’s free game, you unconsciously just might pick up on some type of knowledge but in a cool way, you know what I’m saying? We have to keep the kids engaged. So I talk about everything from taxes to the NCAA and they all have substance to them, they all have concepts to them, and they’re all personal things that I’ve been through.
One thing that’s easy to gloss over is that you like working with people at the top of their game. You’ve done eight songs with Drake.
Really, it’s been eight?
It’s been eight.
That’s dope, we work good together.
Outside of labelmates, I don’t think anyone has done that many songs with Drake.
Maybe he knows that too. [Laughter.]
It’s clearly working. But also it can be a curse for some people because they just get washed or overshadowed. Or don’t have the charisma to keep up with the super famous ones, the people who are the best at what they do. Which I thought about when I saw you having LeBron in the studio. Is that something that’s conscious for you?
I go where the energy take me, I’m not really somebody just trying to hang with different people. A lot of times, these places, people call me, I get invited to them and ... like I say, I’m myself all the time. I don’t laugh at jokes that’s not funny and I’m not a yes-man. So a lot of these super big people, they have a lot of people that laugh at all the jokes that’s not funny. So I think it’s good to have some energy like me around. Basically, just super comfortable in my own skin and able to distinguish what’s real, what’s not, what’s fake, you know what I’m saying? All that type of stuff. I think people on a high level enjoy that and even on a low level too.
Much has been made of him being an A&R on the album. In an interview, you mentioned how accessible you felt he was, because he just rolled up to your house.
I didn’t have to pull a tooth to get him there. So maybe I was somebody that he didn’t mind being around. Look at that, it takes two, you always hear that.
You both got something out of it, so it wasn’t like he did you a favor.
Nah, nah, nah—he did. Don’t get it twisted. He did me a favor and I’m very appreciative of it. He didn’t have to do that, that’s the best basketball player in the world. You know what I’m saying? He’s the best basketball player in the world, he has to try to make the playoffs, it’s a thousand things he could be damn doing so I am very appreciative that he took the time to do it.
But I’m acknowledging him, I’m giving him his roses while he’s smelling them. He’s gonna get real credit on the album, it’s gonna be something that he can put on a résumé. This is legit. Like, say basketball don’t work or something, right? [Laughter.] Let’s say it doesn’t work, he can do music.
It’s good for his LinkedIn.
Basically, I thought it’ll be cool for the culture. LeBron is great to us, man. I wanted to reciprocate the love.
As I put away my notepad and prepared to re-enter the January cold, I looked back at Chainz, who looked relaxed, a day full of public obligations, in the middle of a press run, finally over. But I couldn’t leave without addressing my elephant in my room.
“That’s not mink, is it?”
“That’s the type of coat I always try to steal from my aunt.”
“You need to get one for yourself.”
“You know, it’s funny, I genuinely thought I’d have the best coat and most rings at the function today. And then you walked in.”
He smiled and lit his joint.
“You tried. But you know I’m the Drench God.”
I nodded my head, and exited the van.