Forever I Love Atlanta: Young Jeezy’s ‘Thug Motivation 101’ at 10Thaddaeus McAdams/FilmMagic
“If you’re doing better than you were doing 10 years ago make some noise,” Jeezy barked at the Fox Theatre crowd. It wasn’t your typical call-and-response concert moment. Most are knee-jerk reflexive, with the sheer act of being talked at instantly causing you to yell, your body to flail, react. But here, Jeezy’s question caused a slight hesitation in the room, a moment of reflection, before adhering with a response.
Hell yeah I’m doing better — wait, was I doing better now than I was 10 years ago? I think I am — no, I definitely am. It wasn’t easy, though. Things easily could have gone off the rails. You remember that recession? That shit was wild. Could have permanently messed up everything. You know, I hadn’t really thought about 10 years ago in a while. Been so in the moment of late. Hey, good job. This is awesome. But don’t get complacent. It could all be over in a flash. Got to keep pushing.
And then, after that flurry of thoughts, came a triumphant, explosive response. Throughout the venue, you could feel a collective sigh of relief embedded in the cheer. A “yes” but also a “thank you for asking.” Thank god we are doing better than we were 10 years ago.
Progress is such a simple premise, but when Jeezy talks about it, it feels momentous — you can sense the levels. He’s consistently presented his lows and highs. You know how far he’s come and how much further he has to go. It’s clear that “making it” wasn’t always inevitable for Jeezy. His ability to push past some of his demons — while not quite shaking others — is possible because he is always talking about the truth of his life. For the past decade, he’s been adamant about that truth — in every noun, every verb that he raps — because he seems to have internalized his listener’s struggles. Jeezy is a cautionary tale, an inspirational figure, a fuck-up, a success story. And as long as he’s Jeezy, the lows and highs will always be there.
Saturday night, however, was an undeniable high. Here he was, standing on one of the most prestigious stages in his hometown — proudly proclaiming “selling out The Fox [Theatre] on some real n**** shit” — celebrating the 10th anniversary of his debut album, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101. Ten years after its release, people still care about his first album — about him. Professionally, it was an achievement. Only a handful of his 2005 peers are still culturally relevant, and an even smaller collection could garner such a response for a concert, a party, a homecoming, a celebration of the anniversary of a singular work.
The night recalled Fade to Black, the 2004 documentary that chronicled Jay Z’s “last album,” The Black Album, and the corresponding Madison Square Garden concert in which a who’s who of stars touched the stage to celebrate Jay while every person in the crowd passionately rapped along to every word. For years, Jay Z was considered a talent with few peers, a man with generation-defining cool. But deeper than that was his unique ability to inspire. The motto of Fade to Black was “From Marcy to Madison Square,” signifying his origins and the possibility of where one could end up. And because of his life story, during his 1996 to 2003 arc — Reasonable Doubt to The Black Album — he was the American dream, New York City personified.
If there’s a figure in rap since who parallels Jay Z’s rise and relationship to a city, it’s Jeezy. When Jay Z ascended to the 1 percent, Jeezy was waiting in the wings, ready to seize the torch.
This night was a celebration of Jeezy’s rise and progression, his talent and his cool — a continuation of “the Street Dream,” Atlanta personified. And just like Jay’s night in 2003, the response in the Fox Theatre perfectly mirrored Jeezy’s impact on music, on a lifestyle, and on a city. And his friends showed their support, too. The architect of Jeezy’s Gangsta Grillz mixtapes, DJ Drama, was on stage for the duration of the show. The producer behind Jeezy’s first hit “And Then What,” Mannie Fresh, came out. Southern legend Bun B materialized on stage to perform “Trap or Die” with Jeezy, one of the seven menacing, genre-molding Thug Motivation 101 songs produced by Shawty Redd. R&B singer and Atlanta native Lloyd came out for “Tear It Up.”
When T.I. hit the stage for the second verse of Atlanta anthem “Bang,” I was reminded of what Nick Love, former marketing director for Jeezy and his imprint, Corporate Thugz Entertainment, once told me about the two rappers: “Anytime Jeezy and T.I. are in the same room, it’s a big deal.” And it was undeniably special, in a way that felt like it may never happen again. (Just to show off, Jeezy brought out Lil Scrappy for the song’s third verse, peaking with the delivery of his line “I don’t rep the A by mistake, I do this shit on purpose.”)
In 2005, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 was an album that a city could beat its chest to, and then well up with pride over. Ten years later, that feeling had only intensified.
Throughout the concert, Jeezy would occasionally address the crowd, saying he knew this was supposed to be a TM 101 night, but that he lied. And in these moments, he’d play songs from other parts of his catalogue, making the night a full career retrospective, a celebration of all 10 years, not simply his first. He reunited with his old group, Boyz n da Hood, as they performed “Dem Boyz.” Monica walked out, just to wave at her city. He near-chastised the crowd, saying he was about to start playing the “hits.” And that, if you weren’t here for that, “fuck you,” he’d see you at the club after the show. Suddenly, Usher appeared on stage to perform “Love In This Club.” And then, 100 percent of Outkast landed on stage with Jeezy, following the breezy, romantic, Andre 3000-assisted “I Do” from TM103: Hustlerz Ambition. Later, Jeezy teased Kanye West with the first verse of “Put On” — and then Kanye came out to help Jeezy finish the song.
At one point, Jeezy brought out Fabo. D4L’s Fabo. Fabo of Fabo fame. Yes, Jeezy brought out Fabo in 2015. Few things can cause more hysteria in Atlanta than bringing out Fabo. But Jeezy found him, and they performed “Geeked Up (Remix)” and then Fabo did his Fabo thing while doing the Fabo dance for so long that Jeezy had time to leave the stage, take a quick break, and then return about a minute later.
In Jeezy, we saw a diverse artist, illuminating the varied musical company that he’s kept over the past decade, and experiencing the true expansiveness of his catalogue. But while underrated in his range, what remained true was that the Jeezy you got with Fabo was the same one you got with Kanye. The Jeezy you got with Jody Breeze was the same one you got with Usher. And the excitement with which he performed a no. 1 single was the same as the hood anthem that rarely leaves the confines of I-285. There’s no code-switching with Jeezy. It’s all just Jeezy.
And regardless of where Jeezy was in his catalogue, the audience was right there with him. TM 101 wasn’t performed in order, and the non-album cuts were interspersed throughout, which made every moment a surprise. But with each surprise song’s first note, an entire room was transported back to where we were when that song was released. Yes, we were being performed for, but we were also returning the favor.
Jeezy is unquestionably one of the most important characters in the rise of Atlanta toward the epicenter of the hip-hop universe. And with every passing year, it’s increasingly difficult to remember a time in which Atlanta wasn’t positioned so centrally. But when you do, you’re reminded that it began to solidify — and then perhaps peak — right before Jeezy released his debut album. And it’s no stretch to argue that had it not been for this seminal album, that peak could have led to the inevitable slide for a city and its newfound stranglehold on an industry.
The context for 2005’s Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 is crucial, even though the album has the ability to flourish in a vacuum. It’s standalone great, but when you remember where music was before the album appeared, its existence — and success — is even more of an achievement.
Before 2005, there was 2004, the year everything came together for Atlanta. In 2003, Outkast was at the top of the charts with “Hey Ya,” and that would continue into February 2004, when Andre passed the torch to Big Boi’s “The Way You Move.” The video for T.I.’s “Rubberband Man” included a smorgasbord of Atlanta celebrity, peaking with then-superstar Michael Vick and Usher dancing in front of a 15-foot “T.I.” structure, engulfed in flames. Ludacris still had hits in heavy rotation from his 2003 no. 1 album Chicken N Beer, and would have a new slew of hits from another no. 1 album in 2004, The Red Light District. Crunk music had made it to another year, cresting in 2004 with Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz’ Crunk Juice, Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck,” and perhaps the genre’s landmark album, The King of Crunk & BME Recordings Present: Trillville and Lil Scrappy, which spawned such fist-to-palm, fight-even-when-you’re-not-happy hits such as “Neva Eva,” “Head Bussa,” “No Problem,” and “F.I.L.A. (Forever I Love Atlanta).” And the biggest album of the year belonged to Usher, whose Confessions was no. 1 for nine weeks, and included 2004’s biggest song, “Yeah,” featuring Atlanta’s own Lil Jon and Ludacris.
In 2004, Atlanta hip-hop artists held the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for 42 of the year’s 52 weeks. It was a complete takeover of the industry. Atlanta rap radio could play the biggest songs in the country and nearly all could be locally sourced. Soundtracking the contents of my Discman, my burned CDs, my CD booklet, the pregame basketball layup line mix, the pregame house party mix, and the actual house party mix — it was all Atlanta music. Whether banging your head, jumping manically, A-Town stomping, C-walking, line dancing like your aunt and uncle, faux-shaking a picture, or attempting to grind up on someone, it was all happening to Atlanta music. Not since the Olympics had the city felt more like the center of some universe. Veteran Atlanta-based journalist Maurice Garland accurately described this era as “fertile,” saying “everyone from Atlanta was becoming stars. I could call up magazines and be like, ‘This group down here is doing this, I think they’re about to blow up.’ And then they would end up being successful.”
And while the hits were plentiful and the styles were varied, there was a common thread — dancing. Atlanta likes to move, has always liked to move. Describing the city in 2014, rapper Killer Mike said “Atlanta, for my whole life since Mojo dropped, since ’82, has had a rap presence, a b-boy scene, and it didn’t necessarily have to be break dancing because we’ve never stopped dancing. We are the city that has never stopped dancing. We have never ever, ever, ever stopped dancing.”
Mike isn’t wrong. But there’s a small asterisk beside this claim: 2005. In 2004, there was crunk. And in 2006, there was snap. But in 2005, there was Jeezy. It wasn’t only Jeezy, but no one in Atlanta had 2005 quite like Young. And while previous and future incarnations of “trap music” have made you want to dance, the genre through Jeezy’s lens was much different. And with the release of Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, he pulled a complete 180 on the party-centric, increasingly mainstream-friendly darling that Atlanta had become in 2004.
His visualization of the trap wasn’t terribly different than previous incarnations, most notably from T.I.’s 2003 album Trap Muzik. T.I. made it explicitly clear the “trap” wasn’t for everyone. As he said on the intro of his album, “This ain’t no album, this ain’t no game, it’s a trap.” And that he was a product of said trap. And that a function of the “trap” was in the definition of the word — yes, it could often be a trap. And that, psychologically, he has never left — and probably will never leave — the trap.
But through the production he chose, T.I. also made the trap sound like a place you might want to visit. It became a place to consciously avoid that you wanted to immerse yourself in. Through T.I., you got a sense of what the trap was like. But with Jeezy, you could see it.
The first 11 minutes of Thug Motivation 101 sound like crime, in a way music rarely has. The songs sound as if they were composed, elementally, out of drugs. The beats sound as if they were exclusively made in a dungeon. In daylight, these three songs were never meant to be listened to. And not only was Jeezy a product of this environment, as he says in the opening track “Thug Motivation 101,” but he also echoes the T.I.’s sentiment that “the trap is bigger than music.” Then he takes it one step further.
These are more than words
This is more than rap
This is the streets
And I am the trap
Jeezy doesn’t just present you with what he sees, it’s what he knows. But where that’s the entirety of the approach for many rappers, that’s just half of what Jeezy offers. He routinely balances that out with being a motivational speaker. He wants to tell you how it is, but he also wants people to improve. He wants to connect with people in the thick of it, but he also wants those same people to find a way out. He always wants people to do better. Subtly, that two-part premise is in the title of the album, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101.
The world is yours, and everything in it
It’s out there, get on your grind and get it (Ayeeee)
Hands in the air (Sky’s the limit, n****)
Hands in the air (Jeah)
Wisely, he’s figured out the best way to connect, to inspire — and to not be preachy — is to be transparent. There no judgment in Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101.
In the first 25 seconds of “That’s How Ya Feel,” Jeezy describes a disrespectful encounter, a potential confrontation, advice about how to handle that confrontation aggressively, and then ends it with an exercise in how to boost your self-confidence — all while at a red light, all before he even starts rapping.
This type of self-help might not work for everyone. And to some, this might not seem beautiful, inspirational, or motivational in the slightest. But I can speak to it directly because when the album came out, I was 18 and living in Atlanta. And when I began listening to it, I remember what happened. Ten years later, I’m still feeling the effects.
The song that unexpectedly got me was “My Hood.” It’s a simple song, perhaps the happiest and hokiest moment on TM 101.
Every time I do it I do it for my hood
Every time I do it I do it for your hood
Every time I do it I do it for they hood
It’s understood, I do it for the hood
The streets love Jeezy and I love them back
It was what I needed to hear at 18. It was the summer between high school and college, the most carefree, confused, confident, terrified, malleable moment of my life. And not only was I preparing to leave for college, but I was leaving Atlanta. I had pride in my city — thankfully that was cemented — but who was I? How would I act when not in the confines of my city? Wait, why was I going away for college? Was this a mistake? This definitely seems like a mistake?
Thankfully, these fears were assuaged, in large part, because of this album. The messages were right there. Jeezy spelled it out. And from the moment I left Atlanta, everything I did, I had to do for my hood. My Atlanta. And I couldn’t just disappear. I had to come back home frequently. I had to tell the story of my city everywhere I went. I had to do my city proud, because I was now an ambassador for my hood. And I had to return to the places that made me. I could never be a stranger in Southwest Atlanta. They had to always be proud of me, the same way I was proud of them.
But it wasn’t just in that song. The messages were sprinkled everywhere.
I’m what the streets made me, a product of my environment (chea)
Took what the streets gave me, product in my environment (aye)
This lyric, literally, is about drugs. But if you take a step back, this lyric is not about drugs. I was a product of my environment. My family was a product of that same environment. It was clear, the moment I left, it was the thing I couldn’t ever forget.
At that time, the way books, church, the wisdom of elders were supposed to register, keeping me on the right path, the only thing truthfully doing the trick was Jeezy. The 19 tracks of Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 were my summer reading list. “Bottom Of The Map” was filled with mantras; “Trap Star” was a hymn. The “ayeeeeeee” ad lib was just that — an ad lib — but also was a way to shout out my hometown, The A, whenever the opportunity arose. Yes, the world Jeezy outlined made me wonder about life on the other side. But nothing has ever made me want to do a little bad while inspiring me to do so much good like TM 101.
Jeezy took all the nauseating respectability out of having drive. And at that moment, as I prepared to transition from a child to an adult, that’s what I needed. Not Cornel West; Jeezy. Not Al Sharpton; Jeezy. Before I had Barack, I had Jeezy. For a decade, this album has been by my side. And walking into his 10th anniversary concert — as I approach my own 10th anniversary of leaving Atlanta — celebrating the moment with friends and strangers alike, I owed a great deal to him for not feeling like a stranger in my own city. And for my reality of doing much better now than I was 10 years ago.