Just as every cop needs a criminal and every superhero needs an arch villain, every motivational speaker needs a societal crisis. Atlanta’s Young Jeezy has built his brief career on the reputation that he is hip-hop’s Tony Robbins, a triumphant dope dealer pushing equal parts product and inspiration, and so he comes to our current malaise as eagerly as Edward Hopper to a lighthouse or Dennis Lehane to a double homicide. Add to that the fact that his most recent effort, 2006’s uneven The Inspiration, threatened to push him into the realm of irrelevant redundancies along with other one-trick-ponies like Ludacris and Lil Jon, and one cannot ignore the sense that The Recession is Young Jeezy’s do-or-die moment.
The thug motivator hardly shies from the task, though, and thus Recession hits those still reeling from the summer of our discontent like a ton of bricks, or better yet, a thousand gallons of free gasoline. Up until now, Jeezy’s lyrics were a monotonous if entertaining celebration of the hardscrabble entrepreneurship and day-to-day grind of street life, and they were backed by the triumphant, synth-and-snare production techniques that were the hallmark of the Southern rap renaissance. Here his approach is freshened by significant doses of anxiety: Beats and hooks often wax melancholy, and Jeezy finds himself iterating such personal conflicts as paying his relatives’ medical bills and questioning his own buying habits. “Circulate” samples a 1970s Billy Paul song about economic troubles and features lyrics fessing up to the kind of buyer’s remorse to which we thought iced-out rappers were immune: “Looking at my stash like where the fuck is the rest at? Looking at my watch like it’s a bad investment.”
Although high-profile guest spots are largely absent on Recession, the keynote to Jeezy’s inspirational conference belongs to Kanye West, whose Autotuned verse at the end of the single “Put On” is arguably both the album’s highlight and one of the year’s most compelling hip-hop performances. West takes the T-Pain effect to a level of emotion previously unexplored, sounding like a weeping drone straight out of WALL-E as he reflects on his mother’s death and the unrelenting loneliness of success. Recession is full of these moments of determined uplift in the face of a struggling economy and a declining music industry. Jeezy could as well be trying to motivate himself.
And yet Jeezy has hardly entered Common’s territory of social conscience. His illuminations rarely peer deeper than the chorus of the album’s opener, on which he sings “It’s a recession, everybody’s broke/So I just came back to give everybody hope.” And as much as Recession‘s issue-oriented think pieces are marvelous concoctions of swagger and hard-times storytelling, Jeezy still cannot avoid the kind of hood-repping trap rap that brought him to this point. The 72-minute album is bloated with too many bangers like the crunk-perpetuating “Who Dat” and the Lil’ Boosie-graced “Everything,” which just sound pointless compared to the high-stakes drama of the Obama anthem “My President.” But there’s a unique pleasure in hearing a once one-dimensional rapper discover complexity, and for that Recession is nearly indispensable.