The desolate music wasteland that is the holiday season leaves listeners with two options: latecomer Christmas collections hoping to soak up seasonal cheer and rap albums like Young Jeezy's TM:103 - Hustlerz Ambition, forced into this bleak corner after months of delays. Like most of the stuff that ends up getting dumped around this time, the album isn't anything especially revelatory, a middling set that contains few surprises, aside from raising questions about what took Jeezy so long to make it.
TM:103 suffers from the common fractured quality that befalls hip-hop albums with long gestation periods. Its initial release date was set for June of last year, and though the rapper's music hasn't changed much in the interim, nearly everything else has, leaving us with a hash of production styles and producers. The delay has made room for some improvements, such as allowing for the appearance of the recently released-from-jail T.I. on lead single "F.A.M.E.," his velvety verse nicely contrasting with Jeezy's raspy, hater-murdering fantasies. But too often TM:103 sounds less like a cohesive album than a collection of random tracks.
That doesn't mean these songs are weak per se, but it's disappointing that the album's biggest unifying device is Jeezy's trademark "ha ha" sound effect (famously sampled in Kanye West's "Can't Tell Me Nothing"), which shows up here roughly 75 times. It's further evidence of how static the rapper remains, clinging to his status as the Oscar the Grouch of rap, his persistent gruffness less an affectation than an indication of some nagging distemper, a quality highlighted by his winningly hoarse voice. His style is as workmanlike as ever, and his focus on street-level lyricism amid a welter of Southern-style production helps to anchor TM:103, at least providing it with some measure of consistent identity.
The problem remains that Jeezy's not a dynamic force himself; he's a low-wattage heavy, in need of bigger personalities to accentuate him. This is most evident on fantastic tracks like "I Do," which intercuts his brusque love imprecations with two of the year's best guest vignettes: Jay-Z's magisterial rendering of the club as his personal court and Andre 3000's gonzo fascination with a woman seen from afar, which stretches far beyond the usual fantasy coupling to marriage, childbirth, and a meditation on their hypothetical daughter's reading habits. Sandwiched between such vibrant voices, Jeezy feels crucial, an earthy force keeping the track rooted in a grittier reality. Unfortunately, he sounds far less in command on most of TM:103, never lost, but rarely entirely at home.