William Hutson (Clipping) Talks Jeezy’s Seen It All: The Autobiography

Clipping producer William Huston contemplates Jeez’s status as the platonic ideal of gangster rap, and the value of quality mastering.

Jeezy, née Young Jeezy, né Jay Wayne Jenkins, has been an important figure for me, and for the other members of Clipping. He is probably the most skilled and most consistently interesting rapper who is also close to a kind of gangster ideal. One of the most enduring aspects of gangster rap is the contradiction between its strict adherence to a set of generic codes — stock characters, props and scenarios — and its fierce insistence on the validity of individual subjectivity at the center of any given song. Rappers must insist that they’re telling stories about their lives, just being themselves, asserting their individuality through their words — as Jeezy says on his new record, “That’s me, OK” — and that the “I” who is doing the rapping is a real, continuous, unique identity. Jeezy, then, presents us with a story that’s a kind of rap archetype. To describe him is to describe the character of the prototypical gangster rapper: a hard-working hustler, flipped a drug-dealing fortune into a rap career, unfailingly masculine, ladies love him, he’s loyal, confident to the point of arrogance, dangerous when pushed, etc. He rarely provides a narrative we haven’t heard before, or adds any new terms to the lexicon; it’s all Lambos, Glocks and Presidential Day-Dates. I can’t think of a time when he’s seemed even slightly vulnerable on a track. The only angle that could be said to differ from the standard trope is his occasional characterization as a professor/motivational speaker — three of his four previous albums had the title Thug Motivation, followed by a university course catalogue number — and that persona has also been adopted by rappers like Jay Z, Scarface and E-40. Jeezy sets himself apart, then, in the tiniest details: the specificity of his writing, the drawn-out rasp of his delivery, the way his cadences sit perfectly within the drum patterns he chooses, his absolutely brilliant ad-libs. Jeezy is working in a restricted field. His subject matter is severely limited, but his strength lies in the way he arranges and rearranges the already familiar material of the genre.

I’m not sure if it’s obvious why this is a trait we in Clipping so admire. Without going too much into our own concepts and processes, I should say that the lack of first-person in the lyrics of our rapper and frontman Daveed Diggs — the kind of fractured, multi-point perspective without an abiding “self” to ground it — is an attempt to deal with this contradiction in rap, but our interpretation was to remove the assertion of an identity behind the words. The original guiding principle for the lyric-writing was to reiterate existing rap clichés, but in such a way that there was no personality claiming to have experienced those things. The “voice” of Clipping is, then, a fractured hive-mind of perceptions that cannot form itself into a coherent “I” — which is why that word never appears in the lyrics (or in the title) of our album CLPPNG. (I think we can point to rappers like Eminem and Kool Keith — who constantly seem to be overtaken by a multitude of schizophrenic characters and contradictory perspectives — as precedents for this style, as well as to Raekwon’s more imagistic, impressionist raps.) For the first few months the album was out, almost nobody noticed that there was no first-person on CLPPNG, but people are slowly picking up on it. This is why I believe Diggs’ lyrics are more radical than the beats we make. Not using the word “I” — which is undoubtedly the most common word in all of rap — is a constrained writing technique, and a difficult one, similar to those self-imposed constraints found in novels such as Georges Perec’s La Disparition, or Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa.

For Clipping, Jeezy is a perfect source for our voracious, meat-grinder-like process of recycling rap codes. No doubt there exist a million rappers more generic than he, but none is as talented or as compelling as Jeezy. His persona is the genre’s Platonic ideal, the closest a real human can come to a kind of statistical norm. Especially now, when mainstream rap music has gotten so weird. Just look at Jeezy’s own city: the new rappers coming up in Atlanta right now are a fascinating bunch, but even when they trade in established clichés the way, say, Migos or Young Thug does, they do so in such a way as to transform those clichés into an almost alien language. They’re amazing, but they’re like Tex Avery characters. Jeezy, on the other hand, is the paradigmatic, consistent, durable, workmanlike rapper. That’s why he sounds so good over lush, cinematic beats — he’s not just a person, he’s a symbol. His story is a widescreen amalgam of all rap stories. He’s every gangster.

On first listen, Seen It All: The Autobiography, his seventh album, sounds solid, front to back. In preparation for this piece I went back and re-listened to all of Jeezy’s previous major-label albums, plus a couple of the more recent mixtapes. I was already sure of one thing: that Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 (2005) is essentially flawless, easily one of the top 10 records of the 2000s. But what I hadn’t realized was that all of his records are pretty strong. Even when there are no standout smash hits, there really aren’t any terrible tracks either. There are some mediocre tracks, some filler material, but not one is an embarrassing misstep. The worst he can do is make a less-than-memorable track. Very few rappers can manage that. All of our other favorite rappers regularly record some total garbage songs.

I’m not certain that there’s a hit on the level of “I Luv It”  or “Put On” on Seen It All, but the title track — a Jay Z collaboration that feels very much in the same lane as their 2005 single “Go Crazy” — is absolutely as good as any other song in Jeezy’s catalogue. It’s one of Jeezy’s chief attributes to stand up to any other rapper with whom he shares a track. Jay Z sounds like he’s trying harder on this song than he has on anything in a while, and he delivers a very good verse, but the sturdiness of Jeezy’s flow, his unadorned determination, ends up stealing the show. The two really work well together; they seem to share a certain sensibility.

Diggs and I had the following revelation a few years back, when we were listening to Jay Z’s American Gangster album (2007): rap has reached a point where a large enough proportion of its listeners have reached adulthood, and a number of its most respected practitioners could easily slip into careers creating something like “Adult Contemporary Hip-Hop” — the rap equivalent of what you hear on NPR, or pick up as an impulse-buy in line at Whole Foods. Not bad music, mind you, just music for grown folks that makes no concession to youth culture or any current trends. At the time, Diggs was still teaching poetry to middle-schoolers, and he was telling me that none of his students liked American Gangster. They just couldn’t care about it — they thought of it as stuff that parents listened to. It made us feel old to figure this out, but at the same time, we thought: what the hell is wrong with that? At some point, a rapper gets tired of chasing cool. Cool is fickle. (Even though I enjoyed “R.I.P.,” a single off one of Jeezy’s recent mixtapes, I was glad to see that there wasn’t a DJ Mustard beat on the new album.) Seen It All proves Jeezy could easily settle into a lucrative career making grown-up gangster rap. In fact, a number of the songs on the album fulfill that promise. He could easily make 15 tracks that sound just like Seen It All’s closer, “How I Did It (Perfection)” and transform himself into rap’s Bruce Springsteen, happily cranking out quality records for an aging but devoted fanbase for the rest of his life.

This album has a lot of features, but for the most part they’re tasteful. The collab with Rick Ross and the Game, “Beautiful,” is particularly interesting. On the first hook, Game and Jeezy trade off every two bars, on the second it’s Jeezy and Ross, and on the third it’s all three — I love that type of thing. So many features feel like they were recorded thousands of miles apart by rappers who have never even been in the same room together. When rappers go back and forth like this, the real fantasy of a collab track is realized: listeners want to think these dudes did a song because they were actually hanging out in the studio and came up with it together. Nobody wants a feature to be a marketing decision — we want to think these rappers might be friends.

On multiple songs, Jeezy shouts out Avión Tequila. The brand’s logo also appears on the last page of the album’s liner notes. The reason I noticed this is because the same brand sent Clipping a free bottle, hoping we’d shill for them too. Being jerks, we decided against that. (Also, we’re not even slightly famous enough for that to be worth anything to a company so large, right?) I’m not all that fond of tequila to begin with, and they sent us their Silver, which I wasn’t too impressed with. (I had hoped for a bottle of their Añejo, which I like alright. We’ve been pushing hard for a Fernet-Branca sponsorship — a beverage we all really drink, and which is more in line with our image as a band — but that hasn’t materialized.) Anyway, the point is: I was amused by Jeezy’s product placement. Not because I thought it was a sell-out, or that he was being tacky. Honestly, it was just one more example of something I think he can get away with that I’d ridicule another rapper for. There’s something about Jeezy’s voice and his delivery that makes it impossible for me to find corny even the corniest things he says. He manages to make it sound effortless and natural, even when he’s being a stooge for the same booze that sponsored Entourage — like he wrote those bars because he genuinely likes Avión and not because they were offering him a wheelbarrow full of cash to say so. This quality also spills over into songs like “Enough,” one of the strongest tracks on the record. On it, Jeezy is in full-on hood Tony Robbins mode. He’s so unfailingly positive, so inspirational, it would sound cheesy out of the mouth of almost any other rapper. But this is what Jeezy is good at: he tells you to better yourself, you believe that he’s being honest, and at the same time, he never loses that edge that says his life is better than yours and he will punch you in the face if he feels like it.

I’m impressed by Jeezy’s craft and overall polish when it comes to releasing a product into the world. I’m disappointed that many rappers today value the disposability of their work. Writing every song in 20 minutes, not writing verses down (either on paper or into the Notepad app on an iPhone) and recording every verse in one take has become standard practice, and something to brag about. Take some pride in your work. If the song is good, it’s worth doing a second take to fix where you screwed up that one word, I promise. Every verse on Seen It All sounds like it was carefully considered. This is not to say they’re over-written. They feel appropriately casual, not pained, but the layers and layers of ad-libs, all of which fit exactly where they’re supposed to, betray the fact that these songs were not recorded in one take. Jeezy, his recording engineers and his producers put effort into making these songs actually sound good. Again, I know saying this makes me seem like a crank, but the trade-off we’ve seen in the accelerated world of digital mixtapes is quantity over precision. Nobody follows through on a good song’s potential. Would-be masterpieces get released half-finished, un-mixed, un-mastered, with some ridiculous DJ screaming over the whole thing. It’s a shame.

On a related topic, Seen It All was mastered by Chris Athens. It’s good to see that, at least in the world of major-label rap music, people still care about making a record loud without destroying it. Paying for quality mastering suggests these songs aren’t only going to exist as compressed files, waiting to be replaced by whatever song blows up next on somebody’s iPhone. Athens has credits on a ton of rap and pop records from the past two decades and is well-respected (although perhaps he’s not yet reached the legendary status of, say, Brian “Big Bass” Gardener, who mastered CLPPNG).

Some of the prerelease buzz about Seen It All suggested that people think it’s good, but not as good as The Recession (2008). Perhaps it’s a symptom of having sat with this record for a while, listening more carefully than I might if I didn’t have to write something about it, but I’d say that this one is topped only by Let’s Get It. And as far as mainstream rap records of 2014 go, the only other serious contender is YG’s My Krazy Life. Familiarity can warp things — this is, I suppose, how taste and aesthetic opinions are formed — but now that I’ve memorized all the best punchlines, and can rap along with all the hooks, this one’s going to continue to get a lot of play in my car over the next couple of months.

William Hutson is one-third of the L.A. rap group Clipping. They are currently touring the U.S.A. throughout September and October, with select dates in Europe in November. Their album CLPPNG is out now on Sub Pop Records. You can follow Clipping on Twitter here.