On ‘So Help Me God,’ 2 Chainz Gives Rap’s Younger Statesmen a Run for Their Money
2 Chainz is 43, making him one of the oldest rappers to regularly appear on the Billboard charts. Juicy J is two years older, and Gucci Mane three younger. This experience — notwithstanding the appreciable discovery that “Tity Boy” was a terrible name — doesn’t especially make him more sophisticated as a performer. But there’s something enjoyable, even reassuring about his “old bull” take on stepping into the musical arena and laying down a dexterous, unhurried verse or five about the same topics (status, wealth, women, haters) that preoccupy the junior rappers nipping at his heels.
To that end, “So Help Me God” is a rich, satisfying tapestry of tales that edges more than a few inches deeper than the bass that thunders over them. Musically if not thematically adventurous within the narrow parameters of trap’s dominant landscape, 2 Chainz’ latest offers one of the rapper’s most consistent albums in years, with highlights that will endure (and propel him forward) for at least a few more years to come.
“Money Maker,” the album’s first single, perfectly encapsulates the vibe of the rapper’s College Park, Georgia hometown — so much so, in fact, it’s a little surprising that he didn’t save it for the forthcoming sequel to his “Collegrove” team-up with Lil Wayne. The two rappers coast over a marching band cover of Guy’s “Piece of my Love” like Grand Marshals at a parade of candy-coated low riders while boasting about their sexual conquests; it truly should have been the song of the summer, but in November it’s possibly the greatest HBCU anthem since Outkast’s “Morris Brown,” but with a decidedly raunchier focus. Its follow-up, “Quarantine Thick,” is probably the closest thing 2 Chainz will ever get to body positivity, but his Yung Lan-produced tribute to the weight his lady gained during the pandemic bounces on a simple but infectious enough beat for her to work it back off.
The absolute standout of the album is “Can’t Go For That,” where 2 Chainz teams up with Ty Dolla $ign and Lil Duval over a slowed-down sample of Hall & Oates’ “(I Can’t Go For That) No Can Do” as the rapper pays tribute, well, to himself: “Shawty said she love me, I said, ‘I love me back’… Kick it like Judo, the numero uno, yes I’m the highness.” Meanwhile, after 2 Chainz drops references to Louis Farrakhan and Mike Vick, hip-hop’s born-again tabloid magnet Kanye West offers some predictably convoluted wisdom on “Feel A Way,” saying “Don’t let ’em make you feel a way/ Could’ve freed more if they only knew that they was slaves.” Having worked so well together in the past on “Birthday Song” and the transcendent “Mercy,” hearing them together again feels like a warm chinchilla blanket, even if their ultimate message (“this life is give-and-take”) leaves a bit to be desired.
If “Gray Area” offers the album’s most puerile assessment of 2 Chainz’ virility at his advanced age in the rap game (“Old enough to be your Daddy, young enough to fuck your Mama”), the rapper has learned over the years how to put enough bravado on these kinds of claims for them to sound funny, if not always charming. Conversely, songs like “Ziploc” and “Free Lighter” shuffle through familiar gangsta-rap subject topics, from drug dealing to disposing of rivals, and feel especially like filler over nondescript beats suitable for a dozen other rappers. But tracks like “Save Me” epitomize both his unpredictable creativity among a peer group mostly much younger than he is, as well as a focus that’s sometimes excessively narcissistic even by rap standards. Co-producing with Mike WiLL Made-It and the hitmaker’s growing team, 2 Chainz throws a Big Freedia-style bounce sample into what its chorus suggests is a love song (“you saved me from myself/ I don’t need nobody else”), while both his and YoungBoy Never Broke Again’s verses only briefly extol female virtues before zeroing in on the individuals they consider most deserving of their adulation: themselves.
And yet, there’s something undeniable, even magnetic about 2 Chainz’ delivery that keeps listeners engaged even when he’s covering the same territory he already charted multiple times, or switching too erratically between self-glorification and introspection for them to make total sense. It’s particularly fascinating when he begins to wax reflective on album’s second half, starting with the gangsta narrative “Toni,” transitioning to “Southside Hov,” a Jay-Z homage that musically evokes the rapper’s “Blueprint 3” era with a bit less of his substance, and then digging deep for a vivid portrait of ghetto life on “Vampire.” The ease with which he shifts gears to accommodate other rappers, or perhaps adapts his idiosyncrasies to theirs, further evidences the confidence of a performer proven and assured enough to share the spotlight. When he trades verses with Rick Ross over a Mike Dean beat on “YRB,” and then the two of them pause for Dungeon Family abbot Big Rube to deliver a stirring interlude, 2 Chainz exudes the authority of a performer who understands that leading doesn’t always mean taking control.
To that end, 2 Chainz stages a sneak attack on listeners in the final moments of the record, after luring them toward the comfort of the familiar — his unerring skill to craft hits for the radio, or the dancefloor — in a featherweight first half. Inspired by a friend who died at 17, the David Banner-produced “Wait For You To Die” turns fully philosophical as the rapper examines relationships that carry unexpected importance, and his own relationship with a world that places more value on black artists, and black men, when they’re dead than alive. And “55 Times” concludes on a poignant, bittersweet note as 2 Chainz recalls stories about two of his friends’ sons passing (and the number of calls he received about them before he picked up), offering a note of gratitude for his own good fortune (“God keep on blessin’ me, I’m doin’ somethin’ right”) in the wake of too many tragedies.
Now firmly into the second stage of his career, with a songbook bursting with chart-toppers, 2 Chainz’ latest could easily have been a victory lap, or a lazy retread of past glories designed to maintain his status without deepening his stature. But “So Help Me God” is the work of an artist who has matured, even when many of his favorite topics veer into the sophomoric, because he has earned the credibility to combine those moments of levity and seriousness with equal sincerity, and without compromising one when he’s focused on the other. Certainly it remains to be seen for how much longer 2 Chainz will maintain his grasp on the charts, before abdicating his spot to an up and comer hungry for the throne. But one thing you can know with certainty from an artist who has not only lasted through almost two and a half decades in a viciously competitive industry, but also built a second act for his career from the ashes of one of the worst rap names ever conceived, is that he’s a survivor.
“So Help Me God” releases Nov. 13 on Apple Music.