When you’re in a room with 2 Chainz, you really know you’re in a room with 2 Chainz. At the moment, the 36-year-old Atlanta MC is savoring some rare alone time – sprawled out, all six-foot-five of him, on a dressing-room couch, minutes after rocking the Made in America festival in Philadelphia. He’s still in his stage clothes: crisp white Balenciaga sneakers, sleeveless white Raf Simons shirt with a Picasso-looking print, enough gold to bail out a small nation. “Yeah, I’m fresh as hell,” he says. “Everfresh! Balenciagas on my foot, vintage Chanel chain, Céline bracelet with a Versace watch and a Versace pinkie ring.”
And then there’s that voice – super-amped, super-drawly. “You see that?” he nearly yells. “Twenty thousand white people! They were ready to turn the fuck up.” He sparks a spliff the size of one of his long, bejeweled fingers and takes a deep pull. “I could have come out in cutoff jean shorts and a motherfucking cowboy hat, on a Segway. They didn’t care.”
It’s good to be 2 Chainz right now. A week ago, he played the VMAs (where, hilariously, he wore the same fresh-off-the-runway Versace pants as Montreal indie-pop queen Grimes). One of hip-hop’s proudest foodies, he travels with a personal chef whose creations 2 Chainz documents on Instagram, where he has more than a million followers. Kanye returns his calls. And his second solo LP, B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time, is poised to capitalize on an incredible 17-month chart run that’s included three Top 20 hits, plus 11 more that cracked the Hot 100 – most of them collaborations with stars from Drake to Nicki Minaj. He’s the guy everyone in hip-hop is asking for a guest verse, this year’s model of Lil Wayne circa 2008.
But even 2 Chainz sounds a little surprised that he’s this famous. Three years ago, he was best known for having one of the worst stage names in history: Tity Boi, a childhood nickname derived from his rep as a mama’s boy. (His real name is Tauheed Epps.) His nearest brush with stardom had come when his old duo Playaz Circle scored a hit with the Lil Wayne-assisted single “Duffle Bag Boy,” and that was back in 2007. He finally wised up and changed his name in 2011, which is coincidentally right around when his solo career really started to pop. “People think it means I wear two chains all the time,” he says. “But it also means this is my second chance.”
Growing up on Atlanta’s South Side, 2 Chainz was surrounded by trouble. One Christmas, when he was around eight, he saw his father get busted for drugs and sent to prison. A few years later, it was his mom’s home getting raided by the police. “They threw me on the ground, put their hands on me, put the pistol to my head,” he says. “My mama kept saying, ‘He’s only 12. Don’t shoot him.'”
Soon 2 Chainz was selling crack, too. “If we grew up in Colorado, we would probably know how to ski. My whole neighborhood sold dope. I couldn’t go out there talking about ‘I’m going to pass out newspapers.'” He shakes his head. “I’ve been a felon since I was 15. When I went to juvenile, I didn’t have hair on my face or under my arms.”
But he was also a good student and a natural at basketball – talented enough to attract attention from Division I colleges, including the University of Memphis, which saw him as a possible replacement for recently drafted star Penny Hardaway. A weed bust when he was a senior in high school derailed that dream (he was locked up the morning he was supposed to take the SATs); he ended up at Alabama State instead, where he played ball, studied psychology, sold some drugs and got serious about rap. After college he formed Playaz Circle with an old friend and met an Atlanta radio personality named Chris Bridges, who won national fame as Ludacris and signed the duo to his Disturbing Tha Peace label within a few years. “Ludacris gave me my first bank account,” 2 Chainz says. “I still have that account. He might want to send me some money someday.” He laughs long and hard at the thought.
Why didn’t he become a star the first time around? Maybe it was the whole Tity Boi thing, or maybe he hadn’t figured out how to unleash the essential 2 Chainz-itude within him. 2 Chainz’s own explanation is that it comes down to the relentless work ethic that drives him today – which he picked up while opening for Lil Wayne on a 2008 tour. “The guy would get offstage at 11:00, take a shower and rap until noon the next fucking day. And he’s already a millionaire! Having a phone full of millionaires and not being one bothered the hell out of me.”
After that, 2 Chainz started hitting the studio every night. He began cranking out solo mixtapes, which got the attention of some of hip-hop’s biggest stars, and eventually left Disturbing Tha Peace. “Kanye would tell me that he was designing clothes listening to my music,” says 2 Chainz. “Like, ‘I made a scarf listening to that shit.'”
One unwanted side effect of 2 Chainz’s higher profile has been the return of law enforcement to his life. After being arrested for marijuana possession twice earlier this year – he has since beaten one of the charges – he was charged with obstructing a police officer in late August, when Oklahoma City cops stopped his bus and claimed they smelled weed. 2 Chainz and his crew barricaded themselves inside for nine hours, refusing to open the door without a warrant. (One of his associates held a small copy of the Constitution up to the window.) “It just pisses me off, every time,” 2 Chainz says. “It didn’t make a lot of sense. No matter if my chef is cooking fucking tilapia covered in onions, you still smell weed? Well, let me talk to my lawyer, before y’all shoot the shit out of one of us.”
The joint in his hands has gone out, so 2 Chainz relights it. “I don’t do nothin’ to harm nobody,” he says emphatically as he takes another hit. “After a show, I take my shoes off, drink some water and, I’m sorry, but I may smoke a joint.” He exhales a rich cloud. “There, I said it. I hope that don’t get me no time.”
This story is from the September 26th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.