In the fall of 2009, Baton Rouge rapper Lil Boosie (a.k.a. Torrence Hatch) entered Dixon Correctional Institute, where he was to serve a two-year sentence for drug possession. Last March, nearly five years later, he emerged from Angola, one of the most infamous maximum security facilities in the country, finally free after a series of legal entanglements. During his time at Dixon and Angola, he was tried for first-degree murder — before he was acquitted of that charge, his sentence was extended by eight years for attempting to smuggle drugs into prison.1 On his post-release single “Crazy,” he grimly explained: “If you were facing that needle, you would get loaded, too.”
It was later reduced, allowing for his release in 2014.
To commemorate the rapper’s release last spring, fans were treated to a streamed press conference, features in major music publications, a round of stadium shows, and news of a new contract with Atlantic. The reception befit the homecoming of a beloved hip-hop institution. But before his incarceration, Boosie was still considered persona non grata by some — just one of a cadre of pedestrian, “ringtone rap” wonders clogging the airwaves during what many considered hip-hop’s direst period (circa 2006-08), and with a particularly grating voice to boot. One blogger griped: “For years, hip hop has been screaming FREE BOOSIE, like he’s the Mandela of Black Twitter. And no one has successfully explained why we should be so excited for the return of a C-list rapper.” Some were simply confused. Others protested the red-carpet treatment of a convicted criminal, or questioned the intentions of the social media outpouring.
Part of understanding the approbatory uproar requires appreciating the impact Boosie has had in the South, even before his commercial breakthrough. The idea of Boosie being the Tupac of the South has been thrown around. His label home, Trill Entertainment — cofounded by UGK’s Pimp C — moved thousands of units while it was still an indie, and Boosie packed out “chitlin’ circuit” tours. He became a local hero for his collaborative albums with labelmate and frequent coconspirator Webbie — 2003’s Ghetto Stories and 2004’s Gangsta Musik — and before that, he had been a child star in Baton Rouge, rapping alongside former No Limit member Young Bleed in his minor supergroup Concentration Camp. A 2008 Fader cover story captured his hometown celebrity in the wake of his biggest hit, a remix of labelmate Foxx’s “Wipe Me Down” that was served to radio with Boosie as the headline artist. The story finds Boosie playing to an audience of almost 10,000 at Southern University and having his car pursued by local “kids pedal[ing] their Huffys” after him.
But unlike earlier once-independent, multiplatinum-selling Southern rap dynasties like Cash Money and No Limit Records, Trill Ent. never peaked on the national scale. If nothing else, the group’s rise was ill-timed. By the time it broke through to the Hot 100 — first with Webbie and Bun B’s raunch-fest “Give Me That,” then Boosie and Yung Joc’s snap hit “Zoom” and the ubiquitous “Wipe Me Down” — rap album sales had officially begun to wane; the days of 400 Degreez–level sales had dissipated. Boosie’s first major-label-backed full-length, 2006’s Bad Azz, sold only modestly, barely cracking the top 20 on the Billboard 200 and falling short of a gold plaque. “Fuck the Internet — fuckin’ all our CD sales up, takin’ all our money,” Boosie told Vibe in 2008. “I sell a million records on the street. I should have come out in 1998 before everybody was burning CDs. Only thing I do on the Internet is buy Jordans.”
Mediocre sales in a market saturated by country-fried Southern MCs meant being relegated to a national footnote. Trap rappers like Jeezy and T.I., club-friendly snap artists from D4L to Soulja Boy, and even outliers like Plies (who had top-10-selling rap albums in 2007, 2008, and 2009) dominated the charts. As Kelefa Sanneh put it in the New York Times in 2006, Boosie had a “big chance to become a little star,” but it didn’t seem like he could go further than that.
Some street-rap devotees and bloggers, however, came to appreciate Boosie as a more pivotal figure after tuning into another layer of his musical output: mixtapes. By 2009, Boosie and Atlanta’s Gucci Mane were the biggest stars of the mixtape movement in the South,2 releasing an unparsable number of sprawling, .zip-file-syndicated collections, many of which were more well-rounded representations of their artistry than their major-label releases. Boosie’s tapes were full of vivid anecdotal tangents, mournful blues-inflected hooks, and ear-catching experiments in production style. His producers of choice (including Mouse, B-Real, and BJ) mixed the military snare freakouts of Mannie Fresh or Beats by the Pound, the handclapped “hey” back-chants of Shreveport-born “ratchet music,” and countrified funk and gospel sensibilities of Pimp C’s instrumentals for UGK. The DJ Drama–hosted Streetz Iz Mine and Bad Azz Mixtape, Vol. 2 from 2006 were standouts, and by the time of 2008’s Da Beginning and 2008’s Superbad: The Return of Mr. Wipe Me Down, the better part of Boosie’s releases were being praised and premiered by a cross section of underground-rap-friendly outlets.3
Lil Wayne was busy with rap-rock at this point.
Hence, a split has been noted in the pro-Boosie camp: One blogger cynically categorized the rapper’s fan base as being either “the most hood people you can find, and the most wannabe hood white folks you can find whom are bumping the hell out of Boosie tucked away safely in the burbs somewhere.”
But the writers who covered Boosie with reverence were championing him, not reflecting a dominant attitude. Whatever else is true, Boosie was still not the superstar he wanted to be when he went to jail. He was an ancillary figure — praised and beloved, but only in small doses. His 2009 follow-up album, Superbad: The Return of Boosie Bad Azz4 had received mixed reviews despite strong sales figures. The proliferation of social media — particularly the rise of the #FreeBoosie movement — gave an important voice to his fan base in his absence. However, after nearly five years since releasing an album, the artist now known as Boosie Badazz reenters the music scene with a conflicted legacy, not as privileged royalty.
Not to be confused with the mixtape Superbad: The Return of Mr. Wipe Me Down from 2008.
In the lexicon of Southern rap music, Boosie’s work is something of an outlier: He is not key to any historical through line in the genre or part of a major “scene.” His style shows the influence of a panoply of Southern voices — direct predecessors like Nola stylists Juvenile and Soulja Slim and the groove-riding, unshowy UGK — without being reminiscent of anyone in particular. It takes spending time with his work to grasp the unique quality of his writing and delivery, and no one release serves as a perfect primer, though Superbad: The Return of Mr. Wipe Me Down comes closest. Unlike Gucci, Boosie has few signature, replicable tics as a rapper: Other MCs are usually compared to him when they exhibit a shrill tone and boast about street bona fides. Whereas Gucci’s tightly stylized flows and sense of humor have been adapted by an incalculable number of MCs (especially Atlanta talents like Future and iLoveMakonnen), it’s hard to detect Boosie’s direct influence.
And that’s largely because Boosie’s power comes from within; his influence isn’t superficial or even necessarily sonic, but internal. The subject matter is often vividly detailed (“Crack rock is the perk, old people peepin’ out the window like turtles”; “High school, four-deep in a Monte Carlo / Dusted and disgusted, tryin’ make it to tomorrow”). The sharpness of the given image or the intensity of the emotion determines his register (low, muttered, hissed, bellowed, shrieked) and whether he pulls away from or locks in with the beat. These mechanisms often become nearly invisible, sublimated to the greater purpose: to create the most direct line of communication possible between himself and his audience. One will stop and marvel at a specific maneuver only when Boosie sneers a particularly forceful or chilling line (“Got them yellow eyes like my daddy’s eyes / With a look upon my face that say homicide”). Perhaps Boosie’s greatest legacy is encouraging street rappers to use their individual reality as a starting point for a style, without beelining directly for either well-worn gangsta flows or horse-and-pony “lyricism” for its own sake.
Boosie’s post-prison work has taken his hyperrealistic ethos to a new extreme. His late 2014 mixtape, Life After Deathrow, and March’s Bad Azz Music Syndicate collection, Every Ghetto, Every City Vol. 1, are Sturm und Drang-y trap music, featuring some of his most affecting verses to date. As if shaped by years of rhyming without beats to sink into, Boosie’s rapping is looser and more expressionistic than ever before, usually delivered in breathy, hyper-emotive tones. He raps from the diaphragm and the back of the throat, not sneeringly through the nose. His voice bores right down the middle of these tracks, elbowing everything else out of the way.
Lyrically, his appeal is also different: The songs often consist of focused narratives, not half-anecdotes stuck in between boasts, challenges, and d-boy shoptalk. Gone are the featherweight party anthems. Boosie creates scenes across full verses with a discipline he had only hinted at previously. Take the imagery of his trial from the Every Ghetto, Every City Vol. 1 ballad “Mama”: “She had her Bible with her / Her cigarettes and her lighter, she fighting with me / She told my lawyer that she would get on the stand / And tell the jury that I ain’t that kind of man.” Songs like “Gone Bad (American Horror Story)” and “I’m Wit Ya” sketch characters from whole cloth: young women looking for love in the wrong places; single mothers raising a family in abject poverty.
His delayed Atlantic debut, Touch Down 2 Cause Hell, out next week, is steeped in the same noir atmosphere as the mixtapes, and it feels only slightly more market-directed. The more radio-friendly beats, instead of providing unwelcome disruptions, lift the fog at opportune moments:The sunny, electric-piano-driven “All I Know” is Boosie’s equivalent of Meek Mill’s “Amen” or Scarface’s “My Block,”; “Black Heaven” is a concept ballad which imagines cultural heroes from Rosa Parks to DJ Screw looking down from the great beyond. Mostly, though, Boosie wrestles with brutal offerings from trap producers. London on da Track, who made a splash with his work on last year’s Rich Gang tape and T.I.’s “About the Money,” contributes the album’s first single, “Retaliation,” which is anchored by a machine-gun kick pattern and a ghostly, Bone Thugs–esque chorus.
This sort of darker and more atmospheric production — now a default in contemporary street rap — suits Boosie. The lethargic BPMs and spare instrumentation leave him room to expand his delivery and pacing. On Touch Down 2 Cause Hell’s most powerful moments, he juggles speaking, half-singing, and crooning with an unpredictable ferocity. “Windows of My Eyes” is a commanding opening salvo: Boosie purrs low commentary, as if muttering to himself, after snarling with death-rattle fury (“But I ain’t listen / and no this ain’t livin’ / Tryin’ to kiss your kids through a fucking glass window / no con-tact”). The song channels a prisoner’s internal monologue — demoralizing thoughts pour in one after another, as a palindromic, water-torturous piano riff doubles back on itself again and again.
Once, Boosie’s music was infused with an almost manic urgency. It was about keeping moving to stay alive; doubting himself for more than a moment meant losing everything. But on Touch Down 2 Cause Hell, Boosie carefully reflects upon and recasts this action, rapping with a deliberate, 10-ton intensity. He wrestles with ghosts, traces his lifelines, and even walks a mile in another lost soul’s shoes. The lumbering, sometimes throat-excoriating approach is not particularly conducive to contemporary, DJ Mustard–style ratchet music (see the waterlogged Webbie-featuring “On That Level”), and in the context of industrial-grade trap like “Mr. Miyagi” or the Young Thug collaboration “On Deck,” it can prove grating. But the album’s best creeping anthems (“Like a Man,” “Hands Up,” Deathrow–recycled “No Juice”) provide evidence of a revitalized artist with a unique sensibility and an excess of ideas.
Today, the shifts in hip-hop that were just beginning when Boosie went to prison are old news. A new paradigm has been established. Major labels are so far beyond letting hip-hop acts develop their artistry and clout on the payroll that few rap albums are even green-lit for release. Though Southern rap’s rhythmic and aesthetic influence on pop music is more prevalent than ever, viral success (see also: “memeability”), a Drake remix, or backup from Lyor Cohen are essentially the only ways street rap acts can crack the mainstream. Otherwise, crossing over requires some crapshoot combination of pop sensibility (Iggy Azalea, Drake) and on-message branding (Macklemore, J. Cole). Boosie’s more successful peers — Jeezy, Rick Ross, and, to a lesser extent, T.I. — bring in diminishing returns and seem in danger of simply dropping off the map completely.
As a recent BuzzFeed study indicated, it’s teens and college kids who continue to determine trends in hip-hop — and most of today’s youth don’t know Boosie. For that reason and others, Touch Down 2 Cause Hell’s sales — or even streaming stats — are hard to predict, and they likely won’t overwhelm. Though Life After Deathrow has been downloaded thousands of times on major mixtape sites, it did not attract significant media attention. Every Ghetto, Every City Vol. 1 was virtually ignored by the mainstream.
“Event” albums that pack hits and surprise releases with the promise of innovation are the main viable commodity in the music sales business. In our haste to canonize, though, it’s easy to overlook artists in the margins — consistent, committed, complex voices. Boosie has followed a historically precedented course throughout his career — particularly in his relentless regional dominance — but he’s always stood out to those willing to listen. His post-prison output is an impressive and often deeply moving collection of work. He remains one of the most powerful voices in Southern rap, an artist for those patient enough to wait for disarming moments. Touch Down 2 Cause Hell is a flawed comeback statement — but it’s just a piece of his puzzle. Rap changes, but artists like Boosie march on unbound.
Winston Cook-Wilson (@ratsonly) is a writer and musician living in Brooklyn. His writing has also appeared at Pitchfork, Wondering Sound, and in the Village Voice.