Fiction is greater than fact in hip-hop, and grandiose tales of street life – albeit usually far from reality – make for better records. But amid a perpetually growing milieu of poseurs and tall tales, Young Jeezy has always been perceived as the real deal; hustling earned him significant wealth well before ever picking up a microphone. Jeezy, unlike most rappers, leverages music as a personal soapbox versus a means to some mercenary ends; he raps because he damn well feels like it, not because he has to. You just can’t buy that type of cred.
It was fitting then, that the rapper opened his Hustlerz Ambition tour last night at NYC’s Irving Plaza with a voiceover from Ray Liotta’s character (Henry Hill) in Goodfellas: "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States."
Clad in a black leather jacket, sunglasses, a gold rope chain with a blindingly shiny medallion and a buttery MCM baseball cap, Jeezy was the hood’s Henry Hill, although ultimately more successful. He followed up with his own hustler’s monologue, "Soul Survivor" and then catapulted into a medley of songs from Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101 including the resplendent, Drumma Boy-produced "Standing Ovation" and the infectious ode to the South, "Bottom of the Map."
Jeezy proved compelling, without really saying much. He whizzed through cuts from the Thug Motivation triptych as well as Recession and one-off – in a show of pure brilliance, he flipped his verse from Shawty Lo’s "Dey Know" on top of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s "Niggas In Paris" – with a short intermission during which the DJ played a selection of NYC hip-hop staples like the Notorious B.I.G.’s "Dead Wrong", Wu-Tang’s "C.R.E.A.M." and several offerings from Jay-Z (notably, no one from Jeezy’s actual plethora of collaborations joined onstage for cameos). The Snowman’s usually delicious, guttural croak showed signs of strain – ostensibly a remnant of the first tour stop – that also softened his famous "Yeahhhh" ad libs. He never fully finished a song and during "Go Crazy," he stopped rapping and just danced and bopped along to the beat, clearly in good spirits. Sound malaises plagued the set and often, the backing track and speaker feedback drowned the vocals out altogether.
The testosterone and blunt-fueled crowd remained raptly engaged despite this unevenness. Ardent Snowman fans, they fervently rapped alongside each song word-for-word, making everything feel all the more anthemic. TM 103’s menacing bangers "Lose My Mind" and "Nothing" turned the venue into a veritable Down South nightclub and during the latter, the floor literally shook as goons and hip-hop aficionados collectively stomped and mean-mugged to the defiant Lil’ Lody-helmed hook, "You don't owe a nigga nothing/Nothing, nothing, nothing…/You don't owe a nigga nothing/Nothing, nothing, nothing…"
Above all, Jeezy was palpably grateful to play for the loyal NYC audience, especially being an out-of-towner. He profusely thanked the city for its decade-long support and encouraged fans to use him as motivation in overcoming detractors and achieving their own dreams. "I want to inspire you to keep muthafucking going!" he proclaimed during a particularly feel-good moment. The sentiment was more than mutual and at one point, Jeezy stood with arms outstretched and just soaked in the reciprocal love from the cheering audience. "Keep your head high and your chest out," he roared during the close, "and most of all, trap or die nigga!" Part motivational speaker, part politician; all gangster.