2 Chainz glides effortlessly across a wide Midtown Manhattan sidewalk looking like he just strutted out of central casting for the world's coolest hip-hop star. In fact, he plays the part with vigor: a crisp fedora hat, designer shades, a T-shirt that covers myriad tattoos, charcoal black vest and slacks, and freshly dipped footwear. The College Park, Ga., rapper's flowing dreads are tied up in a neat ponytail and he's sporting enough jewelry (layered gold chains, shimmering bracelets on each wrist and gold rings) to make Slick Rick a believer. At 6 feet, 5 inches, his towering frame, which stands beneath the offices of label home Def Jam, is not so much intimidating - it's overkill.
"This isn't an image for me," says 2 Chainz, born Tauheed Epps, of his outsized, highly stylized profile. "In '07 I was saying, 'Walk into the Gucci store, honey, I'm home.' That's just who I am. I just feel like fashion has been a part of my artistic expression as well as my wordplay. I'm just enjoying life. I'm getting people to actually smile when they listen to my music."
But fans are doing more than just grinning ear to ear over an artist whose signature name-drop and catchphrase ("2 CHAINZZZ!!!") has become part of the current hip-hop culture lexicon. With all respect due to Def Jam labelmates Rick Ross and Kanye West, as of today, 2 Chainz is the hottest rapper on the planet. His gift for unshakable wordplay is the reason he was tapped to anchor West's steamrolling G.O.O.D. Music posse cut "Mercy," where he drops one of the song's most memorable (and quotable) couplets: "OK, now ketchup to my campaign/ Coupe the color of mayonnaise."
"I haven't seen anything like this since Lil Wayne reinvented himself," says Michael "Sha Money XL" Clervoix, the Def Jam VP of A&R who signed 2 Chainz to the venerable label earlier this year. "Everybody in the hip-hop world is embracing 2 Chainz just like they did when Wayne was doing features on everybody's songs. When I was managing 50 [Cent] and G-Unit, there was a lot of alienation [and] we weren't able to work with everybody. But with Chainz, I'm able to see him work with everybody from the Young Money camp to G.O.O.D. Music. Everybody wants to see him do well."
That good will, coupled with the artist's own relentless output of late, has shot 2 Chainz to the top of the Hot Hip-Hop/R&B Songs chart. West's aforementioned G.O.O.D. Music smash is No. 1; 2 Chainz' own single, "No Lie," featuring Drake, is No. 2; and Nicki Minaj's hood-laced anthem "Beez in the Trap," featuring 2 Chainz, is No. 32. And his list of cameos reads like a musical crossword puzzle without borders. This year alone, 2 Chainz has popped up on a tidal wave of diverse tracks including songs with Jadakiss, Justin Bieber, Big K.R.I.T., Snoop Dogg, Chris Brown and Wiz Khalifa. And his Def Jam solo debut, "Based on a T.R.U. Story" (due Aug. 14), carries the type of event album buzz usually reserved for A-list artists.
Not that kick-starting his solo career was a simple process. "I almost wanted to stop rapping," 2 Chainz says, reflecting on a career that dates back to the late '90s and includes years spent as the fourth man on the crowded bench that made up the roster of Ludacris' Def Jam imprint, Disturbing Tha Peace. "There was no one saying, 'Oh, you are going to blow up!' Because I was one of the cats that was always in the studio. People would say, 'Man, what the hell is he doing in there?' Now everyone gets to see what all the long nights and short days was about."
Indeed, the triumph of 2 Chainz is nothing short of remarkable. It's a rare day that any artist, much less a rapper, is able to successfully reinvent and rebrand themselves, and yet that's exactly what 2 Chainz has accomplished during the last 16 months. Originally recording under the name Tity Boi, a childhood nickname, the former basketball prospect managed to find minor success rapping alongside Dolla Boy as part of the Disturbing Tha Peace duo Playaz Circle. But the group's 2007 hit "Duffle Bag Boy," which featured a soaring performance by Lil Wayne and peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100, did little to establish Tity Boi beyond the group and that one song.
"The hardest part was the nonbelievers," says 2 Chainz' manager, Coach Tek of Street Executives Entertainment. "They were the ones saying, 'Tity Boi is done. He had his shot and it's over.' Atlanta was a market that wouldn't pick up on him, which is crazy because your hometown is always the market that will be all over you. They weren't really interested."
Under the supervision of Tek, a plan was set in motion. The stage name Tity Boi was dropped for the more marketable 2 Chainz. His snarling rhymes gradually evolved into a more colorful, economical style that just as easily could play well with trap music fanatics (a genre so-named for drawing inspiration from Southern drug markets, or "traps") as with mainstream rap followers. Pulling a page from Lil Wayne's playbook, a blistering barrage of self-released mixtapes followed: "Trap-A-Velli" (2009), "Trap-A-Velli 2: The Residue" (2010), "Codeine Cowboy (A 2 Chainz Collective)" (2010) and "T.R.U. REALigion" (2011).
The Memphis market jumped onboard. Chicago was next. 2 Chainz' underground single "Spend It" went national, becoming a radio hit that peaked at No. 55 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Requests for song features poured in. No record deal, no problem. 2 Chainz was still able to sell out club dates. Now powerful music industry insiders and labels wanted a piece.
"When he came out with 'Spend It' and the record 'My Boo' with [Memphis rapper Yo Gotti], I jumped on them because they were so hot," says Devin Steel, director of urban programming for Memphis stations WHRK, KJMS, WDIA and WHAL. "His club and his mixtape game were so incredibly big, and he made himself accessible. He was coming to Memphis once a week and doing a show, and then doing shows in Mississippi and throughout the region and doing as many records and as many features as he could when he was in town. He's really cashed in on his relationships and stayed in contact with everyone he knew from his [Disturbing Tha Peace] days. And it's paying off."
"I knew I was doing something when Jay-Z called," says 2 Chainz, referring to a 2011 conversation he had with the Roc Nation mogul and iconic rapper. "I was just thinking, 'Man, I must be getting hot.'"
West was also an early supporter of the "2 Chainz campaign," as 2 Chainz dubs it. "Kanye called us before everybody called," Tek says. "I had heard from an insider that Kanye and Jay were in Paris jamming to 2 Chainz' mixtape while they were working on "Watch the Throne." And I was like, 'What? Get the fuck out of here!'"
After much hype and speculation, 2 Chainz signed a solo deal with Def Jam in January, and he spent the spring continuing to build buzz amid speculation that he was in the process of being officially added to West's G.O.O.D. Music roster. Though the G.O.O.D. move was never made official, it's no secret that the two artists have been working closely together. West's nascent creative house, DONDA, is said to be behind the stark album art for "Based on a T.R.U. Story," and the second single from the album, "Birthday Song," features West. 2 Chainz also recently appeared on the cover of Complex with West and the rest of the G.O.O.D. Music crew.
As for "Based on a T.R.U. Story," the majority of the production hews close to 2 Chainz' Atlanta roots as Sonny Digital, Mike Will Made It and Bangladesh are joined by the likes of DJ Mustard, Drumma Boy and StreetRunner. And while 2 Chainz remains cagey when asked about additional guest features, he says he's already planning his next release. "I got so much music that I'm working on a second album," he says. "Y'all need to hurry up and get this one so I can put out the second one."
In the meantime, there will be plenty to keep 2 Chainz occupied. He is currently out supporting Minaj and is set to return to the road on the Rock the Bells tour this fall, as well as on his own solo trek. He talks of expanding his empire into the fashion realm ("I love accessories," he says) and he already has his own retro FLX phone available online. But he still finds it hard to adjust to his newfound fame.
"I got a daughter and she's about to be 4," 2 Chainz says. "She's very intelligent and when she sees me on TV she sings, 'Ride around and getting it,' and does her own ad-libs. It's just fun, man. But she doesn't understand what's going on right now. I don't even know what the hell is going on anymore."