Jeezy: A Lifetime on the Grind
Photography by Estevan Oriol
Fashion by Tony Su + Aleali May
Tech has Steve Jobs, Buddhists have the Dalai Lama, the streets have Jeezy. Trap’s avowed saint, his voice scolds subwoofers like hot coal. Each rasped ad-lib is a street mantra. Every “ayy” or “let’s get it” a firm earworm, sticking to the synapses and energising dopeboys. Harder than mortar, renowned for shifting bricks of another kind, Jeezy is consistent. Whether flipping rock or real estate, Jay Wayne Jenkins embodies the grind. He’s the street dream, the late shift, the second job on a Sunday, the determination to succeed and the hustle to do it. Who else took a pay cut to pursue music and picked Birdman up in a Porsche before fame, just to stunt? Who else negotiated simultaneous contracts with L.A Reid and Diddy, counted America’s most infamous cartel B.M.F as allies and bought two million of real cash to a cover shoot because he didn’t want any fakery? Only Jeezy.
Now 40, and pursuing a tenth street sermon, the Snowman’s an industry vet. From grams to Grammy nominations, number one albums to false arrests and public beef, he’s seen it all. Jeezy should be satisfied, at peace. But that’s not how the resolute hustler operates; he’s addicted to adversity. Years of pot whipping and pistol gripping will do that. “I just feel like you should never stop challenging yourself, that had a lot to do with my success. Just being put in predicaments that I could figure or navigate myself through, that’s the excitement.” Talking to Jeezy is like attending a prime motivational seminar, minus cheering moms and regrettable instalment fees. A hood Tony Robbins, his conversation makes you want to be better, try harder, do more. We half-joke about starting an advice column. Every other line is quotable. He means it too. “Your next move has got to be your best move, especially if you’re from where we’re from. It’s always about getting to that next level, surrounding yourself with the right things. How can you push yourself to do something you’ve never done before? That’s what it’s always about.”
Jeezy’s Instagram neatly curates his down time. Parties and luxury cars seem more frequent than eating and breathing. Of course, that’s only half accurate. Hundreds of lines championing jumping off the porch aren’t for nothing. Photos stay still, but Jeezy can’t. “I’m one of those people that can't sit in one place or stay at the house for the week. If I am vacating, I’m plotting, I’m thinking. But that’s just how it’s always been for me, it’s one of those continuous things, like what’s next? Even if I achieve one goal, I’ve already got ten more in mind.” Snowman’s blessed, but it’s more insistent work ethic and relentless scheming than luck. A master strategist, cultivated in criminal enterprise, he navigates music with the same life or death intensity. “I’ve acquired a lot of things that you might look at like trophies. They only make you feel. That’s cool, anything can make you feel. A great meal or a great girl can make you feel a certain way, but for me, it’s all about the grind. Just staying productive, that’s what makes me feel great, that’s my natural high.”
Born in South Carolina and then transferred to Atlanta, instability defined Jeezy’s youth. He began dealing crack cocaine around 11 years old, sometimes to relatives. Undercover agents reportedly drove ice cream trucks around the area. As someone who held weapons instead of toys, his path seemed premeditated. Luckily, Jeezy was an outside thinker. "I grew up in a two bedroom trailer, I wanted to buy my mother a house. I knew that I had to figure something out. I wasn’t going to get it working a factory job or washing cars, I wasn't around that, so even when I was young I just felt like there was more to it than what was there as far as opportunity." Despite being courted by hardship, he saw beyond the reaper’s pine box. The Snowman conjured opportunity where none existed. His self-belief drove excellence, whether selling tiny vials or platinum records. Music didn’t come naturally either, people sniggered during studio sessions as he struggled through individual lines.“If I listened to what others said my whole life, I’d still be sitting on my grandmother’s porch. My uncles told me that shit wouldn’t work. ‘You gon sell music? Come on man, you better get out here and get on this block and get this money.’ I was always told that wasn’t going to happen, but I bet on myself and that’s the talent I had.”
Since firing off 2005’s classic Thug Motivation 101 and the equally indispensable mixtape Trap or Die, Jeezy remains unimpeachable. “I didn’t get into this game to be second best or just to be accepted, everything I wanted to do in this game, I wanted it to be iconic. From the way I came in to the way I’ve sustained it, and to the way I’ve kept my reputation, for what it is and just the way I manoeuvre, as far as my faith, my beliefs. I didn’t get into the game to get washed up as far as a lot of the industry things, because it’s not a business, it’s life to me. I play a little different.” Platinum plaques can’t sate Jeezy’s ambition. His external interests include a Buckhead Steakhouse, an alliance with tequila brand Avion and several properties. Recently, he linked with performance water Defiance Fuel, who supply teams like the St. Louis Cardinals. These days he’s more wary of the IRS than the DEA. Some have dubbed him the Southern Jay-Z. “We grew up as chameleons. We grew up being able to go into rooms that we shouldn’t be in and captivate them. That’s our gift.” From laundering money via music to convincing investors of his business acumen, Jeezy doesn’t fear transition; he excels in unfamiliarity.
“I love the rush of the game, I love the rush of going to a boardroom and them not knowing what type of real experiences I’ve had. When they don’t know what you’ve done or your name, but they’re captivated and want to do business with you. Every situation I went through and it didn’t work out my way, it always taught me something. I have a wealth of wisdom the average Harvard graduate or businessman doesn’t have. I’ve learnt, so to speak, do or die, it can go either way. That’s why I watch every little detail, it makes you stronger and smarter and wiser for your next move.”
Defying expectation comes with a predictable cost. Doubt, jealousy, envy, hate. Anyone elevating their game encounters the same emerald-eyed succubus. Jeezy’s been labelled a sell-out innumerable times. Corporate thuggin’ ain’t easy. “That’s what the moment of truth is, are you going to sell yourself out trying to be truthful to other people or are you going to be true to yourself and accept where God’s going to take you?” Whether it’s friends, family, old haters, new haters, uninvited feedback is certain. Jenkins’ initial decision to go legit was considered treachery by some and selling out by others. Being a failed musician is corny and allies who relied on his narcotic economy would come for alimony. When your decisions had potentially fatal consequences, it’s easy to ignore unsolicited criticism. “I’ve seen the realest motherfuckers in the world go behind that wall and tell on everybody they know. I’ve seen women that go in there and hold it down and don’t tell on nobody. You never know what somebody’s version of real is, but one thing I’ve learnt being who I am, no matter who you are, always be truthful to you. If you can wake up and look in the mirror and face yourself then you did the right thing.”
While Young Jeezy was ice cold, the grown Jeezy is political, funny and personable. 2014’s Seen It All and the following year’s Church In These Streets saw a more reflective trapper. He’s bossed up since Honda Accords, three finger rings and a perfectly titled cap. Times have changed since Mr 17.5, an alias referencing his under $20k a kilo cocaine buyout. We’re not just talking inflation, Jeezy’s more forthcoming about his past too. “It’s called the Statute of Limitations” he laughingly explains. “A lot of things with me man, I really just try to stick to the G code. So if I feel like something is dry snitching, I try to stay away from that because sometimes as artists we feel like we can say or do anything, but there’s still rules and regulations that we have to abide by.” Of course there were other reasons for keeping private. He employed dozens, paid college tuitions and had kin to support. “My first couple of albums were different for me because I felt like I had to be closed off from the entertainment world. I was trying to make a living to support my family and it wasn’t about me. After things die down, you realise that “oh shit, you're Jeezy” and it’s not going to go anywhere and you have to kind of start to learn how to deal with it. No matter where I go on God’s green earth, I’m Jeezy, so it’s just like, okay this is what it is so I'll make the best of this.” Of course, the Snowman will always remain partly glacial. He completed the Trap or Die trilogy last year and another polar release is upcoming. Jeezy also plays big bro to YG, DJ Mustard, Rich Homie Quan, Tee Grizzley, Lil Reese and Lil Durk under his Corporate Thugz Entertainment banner. You’ll hear him spitting icicles on Durk’s single “Goofy” alongside drank deity Future.
Jeezy’s message is as important as the music. He conveys the universal human ambition: to do better. Like most rappers, his story is encouraging too. Armed with equal parts determination and delusion, the Snowman sidestepped poverty, peril and dishonour. Only comfortable when he’s uncomfortable, he’s working on savouring his accomplishments. There’s always more to do, but Jeezy’s optimistic for the future. “I would advise anybody that has that talent, even if they don't know they have it yet, once you figure out that you have a talent or believe in yourself, go with that, find out what you're the best at and stick to that. Be the best at that, don’t worry about what nobody else has got going on because that has nothing to do with you. There’s different levels of success, I just want to make myself better.”
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