2 Chainz Goes From Rags to Riches to Taxes on ‘Rap or Go to the League’

2 Chainz’s latest album, the star-studded “Rap or Go to the League,” arrived amid plenty fanfare and anticipation, with such stunts as a blimp flying the skies heralding the album’s name, and some video clips of the rapper in conversation with his hired A&R man for the project none other than the illustrious LeBron James. While the extent and nature of James’ involvement in the production is still nebulous, the idea to involve him is entirely in line with the undertaking. 2 Chainz grew up playing basketball, considered making a career out of it, and still considers the sport a core part of his identity, as he makes clear on the new album. Still, basketball is one of more minor themes of the album, with the bulk relating Chainz’s rise to success, his basking in its glory, and his few qualms and reservations about it.

English singer Marsha Ambrosius introduces the record with the first of many references to basketball, calling out 2 Chainz’s high school basketball team, the North Clayton Eagles. From the first track, “Forgiven,” this is decidedly the work of a middle-aged rapper who still has something of the spark of youth, but also a relative maturity accrued over the years. Unfortunately, this maturity doesn’t quite amount to words of profound wisdom, but rather a collection of hip-hop cliches — think gangster / drug-dealer-turned repentant Christian, turning out platitudes about prayers and forgiveness along with tawdry apologies. This continues into “Threat 2 Society,” a retrospective, rags-to-riches account with a chorus of “It’s so good be alive.” However trite it might be, you have to hand it to 2 Chainz for his enormous success, which is already common knowledge, but of course hammered home through references to Rolls Royces, and the impressive roster of stars recruited for the record.

The musical styles of the album are generally consistent with 2 Chainz’s in-between eras situation, drawing equally from trap and old school boom-bap vestigial fare. On “Money In the Way,” he continues his main theme, now sounding downright gleeful, with such lines as a succinct rebuttal to the 1994 Nas classic “Life’s a Bitch, in which he boasts, “They say life a bitch / We goin’ on a date.” “Statute of Limitations” is a sonic refresher, with some dirty, grimy bass and a type of swag that’s first made its way onto the album. This definitely owes to a feature from Lil Yachty, but Chainz seems to pick up on cue, and veer off from the relatively old school rap stylings that have predominated so far. It’s a reminder of what a versatile rapper 2 Chainz has always been. Next comes, “High Top Versace” — and yes, Chainz actually has his own custom Versace shoe. Again, we find him volleying with a guest, this time Young Thug, who churns out his usual giddy, lunatic theatrics, while Chainz accentuates his playful vocal stylings, but keeps things on the DL, making for an effective counterpoint.   

Travis Scott comes through for “Whip It,” and immediately puts his stamp on the track, with his dim-lit, warbling sing-rapping. It’s an easy track, about little more than the usual braggadocio, worlds away from the righteousness of the first three songs. “NCAA,” is appropriately situated midway through the album, highlighting the basketball theme that runs through it, with a Naughty by Nature-style chanted chorus of “NCAA, yeah, we the young and dangerous.” Chainz gets particularly adventurous on this one, sounding at moments vaguely like ODB, and at others like Danny Brown. Things get ridiculous when the line “I’m playin’ with the clit like a guitar” prompts a full-out eighties tapping metal guitar solo. Next comes one of the most thrilling moments, the Kendrick Lamar-featuring “Momma I Hit a Lick.” It’s a lighthearted track about basically making a quick bit of money, but it shines for both its sonics and the rapping skills on display. It features easily the hardest beat yet — a slickly fractured, syncopated spattering of raw handclaps, thuds, and chiming sounds. Over this backdrop, Kendrick absolutely kills it, throwing out cascading flows punctuated with torrential bursts. The back-and-forth between him and Chainz is hip-hop collaboration at its best.

There’s a dramatic shift of gears upon “Rule the World,” which recruits Ariana Grande, and finds Chainz complimenting her glossy pop posturing by channeling a more laidback and suave flow. The track recalls the likes of those Ja Rule and Ashanti songs that always came out in the early aughts. “Girl’s Best Friend” features Ty Dolla $ign, but doesn’t seem to make the most use of him, with a rather slipshod, lackluster chorus. Luckily, things take on a welcome edge upon “2 Dollar Bill,” which boasts appearances from both E-40 and Lil Wayne. As if arranged to accommodate E-40, there’s plenty G-funk and West Coast cool to the beat, and E-40 might just even eclipse Kendrick with his verse. Lil Wayne is on top form, apparently properly recovered from his relative tepidness of late, and the whole number is a delight. “I Said Me” is equal parts hilarious and badass in how gangster it purports to be, beginning with an exaggerated sample of someone singing the chorus of “My Favorite Things,” until the “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” gives way to lines like, “My daughter asked me what a drug dealer was / I said me.”

“I’m Not Crazy / Life Is” goes more left-field, with a a mellow R&B keyboard backdrop fit to loops of prominent trap stuttering snares and cowbells. Chance the Rapper and Kodak Black both make appearances that seem perhaps a bit too short to do full justice, but still suffice to stamp their own distinct personalities on the track. Chance is at his most languid, laidback, raspy flow, with his particular combination of modesty and showboating, and Kodak fits his trademark, somewhat alien inflections into sparring amounts of Auto-tune. Finally, having started the song with rags-to riches stories, ”Sam” brings things full circle with a related matter: taxes. The title refers to none other than Uncle Sam, and was likely inspired by Cardi B’s legendary rant, in which she repeatedly screamed, “Uncle Sam, what is y’all doing with my fucking money?” Chainz has a balanced perspective, admitting, “See they take from the rich, give to the poor and sick / And I can’t lie, I been on both sides of the fence,” but continues, “See, the education levels ’round here don’t exist… Don’t pay ’em to kill the kids.” In a system with no transparency about where the money’s going, such claims are more than reasonable, considering the pitiful state of public schools, the endless wars, and the continuous outrages from the police department.

Like virtually all vastly successful rappers, 2 Chainz is susceptible to the clichés that tend to plague the genre. This is arguably the album’s primary shortcoming. On the other hand, most rappers whom this applies to not only limit themselves to laughably tired subject matter, but keep consistent with an equally unimaginative range. Chainz leaps freely between an impressive number of subgenres with a fluidity that demands respect. And he not only moderates his bragging with occasional differing sentiments, but also backs it up with both his skill and the staggering cast of characters that have made up his entourage. “Rap or Go to the League” is a colorful, engaging album that generally stays within safe confines, but with enough bold detours to keep it relatively fresh.

Rap or Go to the League” is available March 1 on Apple Music.