It’s 1:00 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon (Oct. 19) but Jeezy has been awake for hours. The rapper (formerly known as Young Jeezy) has been zigzagging nonstop around New York City, plugging his forthcoming album, Trap or Die 3 (due Oct. 28 via Def Jam Records). Fresh from an appearance at Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club, he’s wired. The rapper, decked in all black everything, walks into the large conference room at Billboard’s Midtown office, followed by a pleasant waft of cologne that hangs in the air well after he leaves. Despite being on the precipice of his seventh studio release, the Atlanta native is far from jaded. If anything, he’s giddy about our conversation. “This is my first Billboard interview. Never done that before.” He smirks, boyishly. “I’m glad we can do that together.”
For the record, the 39-year-old rap veteran (born Jay Jenkins) has spoken to Billboard in the past; several times in fact, but his enthusiasm is indicative of how he views Trap or Die 3. It’s been 15 years since his studio debut, Thuggin’ Under the Influence, but he’s treating this like it’s his first time. “It’s not work at this point. It’s fun.”
One of the most significant shifts has been on the backend. Jeezy says he’s more laissez faire about business decisions surrounding the album. He’s letting his team, which includes an indie publicist and A&R, handle more things. “In the beginning of my career up until now, I was more hands-on. This time, I was strategic about putting my plan and my team together. Now, I have people around that I can trust. I can do my work and enjoy my life.”
It’s not easy relinquishing control, especially as someone whose rise was largely in part to his literal hustling on the streets. “I ran a Fortune 500 company from my cell phone before I was an entertainer so I’m used to being a boss,” he says. “I had to learn that you don’t want to be the smartest person sitting at the table. You want smarter people around you. Even the president has a cabinet. It’s just easier. When people bring scenarios past you, you don’t have to overthink it. It’s like, yeah. Let’s do that. Trust your team.”
When it comes to music, Jeezy is still very much in control. He oversaw the creative process for Trap or Die 3, which included selecting the final tracklist and features. “That’s my baby,” he says of his album. “I’m really nitpicky. I have to have the final decision. I’m very private about where I’m recording and when I’m recording.”
Jeezy recorded the entire project in a small, side room at Atlanta’s Tree Sounds Studios — a space he calls “the shoebox” — and says that album guests like Lil Wayne, French Montana and Plies sent in verses and have yet to hear the final version. “It’s like a secret society,” he laughs. “It was grimy, small. We was focused the whole time. The same three people came to the studio: my engineer, producer D. Rich and my [A&R] Folk. Nobody else. None of my peers have heard the album [or] even my closest friends. I want people to really understand what it’s like to be a fan.” This secrecy even extends to previous collaborator (and notably secretive) rapper Jay Z. “I just got off the text with Jay Z and that’s what he was talking about. ‘The two, three records I’ve heard…’” Jeezy pauses, emphasizing that Hov is impressed. “That’s my guy, I want him to call me when [the album] comes out.”
Later that night, the anticipation is evident during Jeezy’s album playback at Openhouse on Mulberry Street in New York. The night is unseasonably warm and the white, loft-style event space is buzzing with media and scene-sters. Def Jam Records executives mill around while new signee Dave East poses for photos. Newcomer Nick Young shows up as does veteran exec Kevin Liles. Jeezy arrives, about two and a half hours late, wearing all-white and with a large entourage in tow. The acoustics in the room are horrible so the playback itself is a bit of a dud but the Avion tequila cocktails are strong and the vibes are good enough that the crowd doesn’t seem worried.
Sonically, the album — or at least, the tracks released to the public — reverts to Jeezy’s street roots. The lead single, “All There” featuring the late Bankroll Fresh, is a fitting installment in the Trap or Die triptych. “Selling dope by the pot, straight drop it’s all there/Yeah I just ran through the bag it’s all there,” Jeezy raps on the hook. He’s reunited with longtime producer Shawty Redd, known for scoring some of his most hard-hitting songs like 2009’s “Who Dat.” For many Jeezy purists, it’s a relief to see this return to the block on wax.
It was an intentional pivot following the commercial, and critical, disappointment of 2014’s Seen It All: The Autobiography and 2015’s Church In These Streets. “I wanted to take it back to creating music. My first two albums, we made from scratch. We didn’t even have a studio,” he says. “We was in my guy Shawty Redd’s basement, making it. That’s what made it special. My last couple of albums, I had a lot of stuff going on. I didn’t have time. Wanting to do Trap or Die 3, I had to take that time.” It’s been a sacrifice on his personal life, he admits. “The clubbing and vacations, I didn’t do none of that.”
Jeezy poured himself into the album and he hopes to re-ignite the visceral connection his fans have had to his most beloved work like 2005’s landmark Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, 2006’s The Inspiration and 2008’s The Recession. Jeezy is making music for the streets again. “In its entirety, it’s real, authentic, quality street music,” he says. Consider it your hustler soundtrack, he suggests to listeners, regardless of whether you’re pounding the pavement or not. “It’s what you want if you want to get pumped up for anything. Like work, court. Doing Billboard interviews. All that.”