Why does Jeezy sound so energized on Seen It All? At this point in a rapper’s career a new record is supposed to be almost an afterthought, a brief bit of face time with the CEO when he’s in the office instead of on his yacht. But there’s Jeezy, bobbing and weaving through a rhyme scheme for two minutes straight on “Black Eskimo.” There he is dropping a career-quality hook on “Holy Ghost.” (“Ain’t nobody gave us nothing so we drug dealing / You know we cop them Louis loafers just to thug in ’em”) There he is laying into the effervescent title track, and laying in even harder on the murky throwback single “Me OK.”
Old Jeezy, it turns out—he dropped the Young in the run-up to this record—raps hard. Young Jeezy never really bothered. The 2005 trap-hop pacesetter would grab a sprightly Shawty Redd beat and sorta bounce around on it for a few minutes. Rap nerds griped about a paucity of “lyricism” at the time, but when everything clicked into place, the results were irresistible. That he was able to maintain this for 18 out of 18 tracks on 2008’s The Recession remains one of the great statistical anomalies in post-millennial hip-hop.
And that’s sort of the problem with Seen It All, his first record in three years. Fans have come to expect a certain level of showmanship and emotional variety from rappers, especially since Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and as Jeezy tries to gamely deliver he finds himself constantly out of pocket. His voice remains a powerful, if inexpressive, instrument—like a gong, or something—but it feels out of place in the fraught electric guitars of “1-4 Block,” or the Mike Will Made It psychedelia of “4 Zones.” Elsewhere, he cedes entire tracks to guest vocalists Akon and August Alsina, and conjures the fell ghost of Murphy Lee on the wholly terrible “Beez Like.”
Jeezy’s career is built on the heartfelt banger, and, after a decade, it’s understandable that he’s trying to place his unearthly voice in other settings. The fact that those settings don’t work turns Seen It All into the very thing it had hoped to avoid becoming: a fussy major-label rap album.
But perhaps the “heartfelt banger” could just use a redefinition. Jeezy sounds most at home here on the almost six-minute “Beautiful,” which feels transported in from an alternate-universe, Madlib-produced version of the record. With Rick Ross and The Game in tow, Jeezy lays out a long, keening verse, the midnight-cool pianos of the beat glinting like champagne flutes in candlelight. It’s the album’s best moment by a mile, and it fits with a running theme over the past half-decade for the emcee: the highlight of 2010’s Thug Motivation 103 was the wedding-day-anthem “I Do,” and the same year he dropped a remarkably tasteful guest verse on Drake’s Aaliyah-sampling “Unforgettable.” All of which raises the distinctly bizarre possibility that Jeezy’s best look in 2014 isn’t hard-knock trap stories but croaking about love over classicist R&B. A full album like that might sound not sound breathtakingly new—but hey, he dropped the Young for a reason.