PITCHFORK: PRETTY GIRLS IS THE MOST FULFILLING 2 CHAINZ ALBUM TO DATE
Pretty Girls is the most fulfilling 2 Chainz album to date. He switches on a dime from dark to hilarious to laid back, cooly landing punches while lounging at the yacht club’s VIP section.
The last song on Pretty Girls Like Trap Music opens with a disembodied voice, no introduction, no instrumental. "As I met 2 Chainz a few minutes ago—as I gazed into his face—I felt that I was in the presence of royalty," the voice says. The voice goes on: “There’s a certain power presence that he gives off.”
This voice is not from a polite radio DJ, or from an eager Def Jam employee. It belongs to Louis Farrakhan, the longtime Nation of Islam leader, which means there’s exactly one degree of separation between Tity Boy and Malcolm X. When the minister finishes, 2 Chainz raps, "‘Cause you got a deep title, don’t mean that you deep," laments his “codeine kidney,” points out that he willed the Bentley truck into existence, and recalls his mother’s issues with addiction. He mulls over the NBA career that could have been. And when he finally pauses to catch his breath, he says to the audience, “Right now, if you hear this, you’re a miracle. I want you to know that.”
Trap music’s roots date back to the early Clinton years, and it's been a presence in rap’s mainstream in various forms since at least the beginning of the first Iraq war. In the 2010s, it became the dominant commercial mode for rap, with other regional sub-genres—drill, for example—mutating its meanest, grandest elements into something new. Pretty Girls certainly falls within trap’s ever-expanding parameters, but it's supremely laid back, nearly 180 degrees away from the maximalism of the Flockaveli and Lex Luger era. This is trap music that your uncle will dance to while he barbecues, taunting you and spilling sauce on his white linen suit.
And that's appropriate: 2 Chainz is 39 years old. Barely over a minute into the album, he barks at you to get off his lawn; at another point he fires shots at quote-unquote mumble rappers. Mercifully, these are the only two moments of grousing. The Tity Boi from Pretty Girls is a motivational speaker, a testament to grit and hustle and the power of self-belief, Tony Robbins if Tony Robbins was friends with Raekwon. This is the culmination of an eight-year second-wind. It’s also the most complete 2 Chainz album to date, and places him where he belongs: in the upper echelon of rappers from this era.
The tone on Pretty Girls is a little bit darker than last year’s insane, freewheeling Daniel Son; Necklace Don. The absurdism is still there, but there’s a pernicious sobriety that never goes away. Take "Poor Fool," where Swae Lee channels 2 Chainz’s mom on the chorus. Tity raps about how addictive the rice at Benihana can be and says he should have a tattoo on his stomach that says “PRAWNS ONLY”; he also pleads with his mother to quit smoking and sighs, “If I’m not successful, ain’t nobody gon’ come and console me.” This is the song where he namedrops Scarface, then clarifies: he’s Al Pacino and Brad Jordan in equal measure.
Part of this is the perspective that comes with age. To jump back to trap’s first heyday: Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 begins with Jeezy walking into his kitchen, hitting the lights, and seeing marble where there once were cockroaches. That record’s arc was powerful but short—the roaches were gone and there was too much money coming in to worry about stashing some Raid for a rainy day. Pretty Girls Like Trap Music opens with a kitchen tour, too, but where Jeezy saw cash machines and million-dollar advances, 2 Chainz sees ghosts. "This a new kinda kitchen," he raps, “marble countertops, see-through fridge/Three-thousand for the microwave, touch-screen stove.” Which all seems very luxurious, sure, until the turn: “Please don’t make me relapse/Make me start back trapping.”
That song, "Saturday Night," is itself a balancing act between promethazine habits and chauffeurs with questionable etiquette. At one point, 2 Chainz asks three rapid-fire questions (“Have you ever seen a homicide? Have you ever seen your partner die? Have you ever been traumatized?”) and then coolly details his bracelets for the day. There’s no hand-holding. Even a shot at his one-time label boss, Ludacris, comes and goes without being made into a parable about self-reliance. For long stretches, Pretty Girls is the sorting of venting you might hear if you were eavesdropping on someone’s therapy session, so long as that person had razor-edged pop instinct and said things like, “Used to drive a Porsche till I found out it was made by Volkswagen.”
Speaking of Jeezy, Thug Motivation 101 comes back on Buddah Bless’s thunderous "Trap Check," which opens with a sample from “Get Ya Mind Right” (and closes with one from T.I.’s “ASAP”). 2 Chainz also pays tribute to Wayne, his long-time friend and collaborator, mentioning him on “Good Drank,” “Saturday Night,” and “4 AM,” where he raps, “I dropped Collegrove out the sky/In a group with the best rapper that’s alive.” When Nicki Minaj shows up, for an extended appearance on “Realize,” she calls herself “Dwayne Carter of the North.”
While the guests acquit themselves nicely in supporting roles, the guy at the top of the marquee isn’t budging. 2 Chainz is "all up in the crowd, Frank Lucas fur coat" (“Door Swangin”); he “moved that blow out like we were Afrocentric” (“Burglar Bars”). On “OG Kush Diet,” a song buried deep on the album that would be filler in almost any other case, he’s mourning his friend’s death all while he cackles in the yacht club’s VIP section.
That’s the sort of focus you simply can’t fake. Pretty Girls Like Trap Music’s penultimate song, the one before Farrakhan, is a Pharrell duet that sounds as if it was parachuted in from another, much softer album, one you’ll hear in a fast casual restaurant seven years from now, just like the penultimate song from The Blueprint 3. 2 Chainz is exactly the same age today that Jay Z was in 2009. But where Jay was running out of steam, 2 Chainz sounds like he’s finally hitting his stride. If not royalty, then the next best thing.