Four minutes into God Level, 03 Greedo’s sprawling, excellent new album, the Watts rapper cackles: “This is my last episode, season finale.” It’s not the end of the record. At that point, there are still 95 minutes left. But at the moment of this writing, Greedo has already marched to Texas and turned himself in to begin serving a 20-year prison sentence on drug and gun charges stemming from a traffic stop two summers ago. In the year leading up to this incarceration, Greedo went from underground curiosity to the precipice of actual stardom, having amassed a fervent following in Los Angeles and online. God Level is a record so massive that it should be impenetrable, a tome. Instead it’s a nearly definitive statement from a gifted writer and one of his era’s most interesting synthesists.
Greedo writes like Boosie – his professed biggest influence – and raps like like Boosie if Boosie took in the T-Pain catalog through an IV and then picked up a copy of Barter 6. That is, most of the time: there are times in his already labyrinthine catalog when he channels Wayne, or Nelly, or even Suga Free. He’ll change the tenor of his voice from song to song, and hop from format to format. Across styles and sounds, he writes as if the walls are closing in around him, zeroing in on the paranoia and betrayal he’s felt in a nearly-mythic personal life punctuated by prison sentences. He’ll rap about how your inner circle is too big if it can’t be squeezed into a Nissan Altima; he wrote, on his breakout hit “Never Bend:” “I’ve been shot by who I loved and told on by my family.”
A remix of “Never Bend,” featuring Lil Uzi Vert – one of the handful of very famous rappers, up to and including Drake, who have paid tribute to Greedo this past month – serves as the closing, 27th song on God Level. After an emotionally and stylistically exhaustive survey of Greedo’s neuroses and skill set, “Never Bend” is an emotional wrecking ball, a man standing up to odds that have already proven themselves, according to the state of Texas, impossible to overcome. God Level is exhausting for the soul, but never tiresome as an artistic statement.
Uniquely long records are nothing new to Greedo; sadly, neither is writing about imprisonment. Money Changes Everything and his trilogy of Purple Summer mixtapes, which spanned 2016 and 2017 and are confusingly consistent despite running for nearly five and a half hours total, frequently deal with not only the condition of being jailed, but with the social and romantic minefields that come with hopping in and out of lockup. (The title of last fall’s First Night Out should be self-explanatory.) The songs about prison here would be grim in a vacuum, but are heartbreaking given the context. On “Bacc 2 Jail,” he begs his girlfriend, “If I’m gone for less than three years, don’t give it up” – moot, if he serves anything close to the full 20.
Greedo’s music is best consumed in long, uninterrupted stretches – after time, it clicks. The goal is to get the effect of him approaching one or two ideas from a dozen different angles, in a dozen different moods. (The exception is The Wolf of Grape Street, his quote-unquote debut album from earlier this year, which is almost uniformly urgent.) God Level is no different. “Onna Way to the Paper,” which features Yhung T.O. from the Vallejo group SOB x RBE, is addictive and danceable, nearly of a piece with the three-song, piano-driven suite in the album’s middle, which starts with the mesmerizing single “Floating” and ends with “Conscience,” a bright and warbled bloodletting.
But there are meaner, more minimal moments. “Street Life” seems to be built around a line from Boosie’s “Set It Off” (Greedo: “I don’t need cable / I don’t need cable”; Boosie: “Told mama: I’m thuggin outside, we don’t need cable”), is spare and vicious: Greedo raps giddily about how he was the only one at his prom who had a baby mama. “Mr. Clean” is expansive singing over a haunted beat, 2014 Young Thug carried to his formless extreme.
There are times when Greedo’s defiant, like on the soaring, six-minute “Fall Off.” He also turns introspective: on “Prayer 4 My Lost,” which is tender to the point of tears, he wonders whether an early death will be his karmic retribution; he raps about his late friend Lil Money, then says, “Sometimes I wanna cry, but I’m always outside / That’s why my feelings gotta hide.” While Greedo’s publicly detailed his process many times – he freestyles most of his work, which is why he’s ensured dozens, maybe hundreds of songs will keep his name alive from behind bars – his writing is consistently piercing.
God Level spends some time engaging with the pain of Greedo’s predicament directly, but at other points copes by repressing the thought. Each strategy brings with it its own kind of discomfort. The second song on God Level – the one where the album gets billed as the season finale – is called “Finally.” On paper, the chorus would seem like rote bragging: “Finally got be a bag, finally got me the cash…finally, finally, finally, finally.” But the song sounds like a panic attack. 03 Greedo finally, finally, finally, finally saw his bizarre, pained, explosively colorful music connect with an audience, in Watts and beyond. He got a deal, he got the respect he felt he was owed. And at the moment it all happened, he had to watch it all be stripped away.