Back in 2007, the now-defunct booty magazine King sent me down to Orlando to profile the Baton Rouge rapper Lil Boosie. Boosie had a bunch of hits at the time — tightly-coiled, exultant club-rap bangers like “Zoom” and “Wipe Me Down” and “Independent” — and the editors’ idea was that I should do a “most entertaining rapper in the game” feature about him. The idea was something like: “This guy is fun!” Those songs and their videos had given those guys, and me, the wrong idea about Boosie. Immersing myself in his mixtapes, and then flying down to meet him, I learned that those party-rap songs, great as they were, only represented a tiny shard of what he did. In the South, he was a street-rap hero, a fiery voice that spoke of violence and oppression and the chaotic possibilities of day-to-day life when you’re a person living without security. He wasn’t a fun guy; he was an avenging angel. When I got down to Orlando and met Boosie, he was in a dark mood because someone had fucked up his hotel reservations. He was not partying. A guy who looked like T-Pain recognized Boosie in the elevator and offered to bring him some weed. He accepted the guy’s gift and then kicked him out of the hotel room. In the hours that he was waiting for a show promoter to send a car and pick him up, Boosie paced his hotel room like a panther. He did push-ups and idly watched Time-Life infomercials and smoked terrifyingly strong weed. He kept the lights off and the shades drawn, and he cussed out his friend for bringing him the wrong McDonald’s order. He fumed about his record label and told me about the time an Arkansas local was shot dead while he was onstage next to Boosie at a show. When it was almost showtime, a friend took out Boosie’s suitcase, and Boosie ritualistically, mechanistically put on piece after piece of jewelry. A guy working for the promoter finally showed up in a beat-up minivan covered in posters and took us to the show, a stage in the parking lot of an Orlando club where Boosie was opening for Lil Wayne and Trick Daddy. Boosie wouldn’t get out of the van until someone had brought him a fat roll of cash and he’d counted it three times. Kids at the show recognized Boosie in the front seat, knocked on the window, waved. Boosie stared straight ahead, acknowledging nothing. Then he left the van and made straight for the stage. Once he was up there, he just ripped. He was magnetic. He rapped like his face was on fire. The kids in the crowd treated Boosie like an absolute hero. For 20 minutes, Boosie led something like a cathartic church service, the whole crowd screaming every word from every verse back at him. Then he got back in the car and went back to the hotel, ignoring his friends as they complained that Trick Daddy’s crew had diamonds and they didn’t. I didn’t like Boosie much as a person, but as a rapper, he had a power about him, a sense of weight in his presence. I felt privileged to see him in action. And then he went away for years.
King didn’t get around to publishing that profile before it went out of business a couple of months later. The album Boosie was making never came out, for reasons that had everything to do with execs at Boosie’s NY-based label not understanding what a monster he was on Southern rap’s chitlin circuit. And in 2009, Boosie went to prison on a drug-possession charge, his two-year sentence seeming way out of line with what he had on him when he got pulled over. That prison sentence got a whole lot longer when Boosie was again convicted, this time for conspiring to smuggle drugs into prison. He was indicted on a murder charge, potentially facing the death penalty. It felt like he’d never get out. But he was acquitted of that charge, and he finally came home last year. Of course, prison does strange things to people, and very few high-profile rappers have gone away for long sentences and picked up where they left off once they got out. (Pimp C is, as far as I can tell, the one guy who jumped right back in at full steam.) Rap history is littered with guys who struggled to acclimate to new climates, or who seemed permanently altered or damaged by their time away. Rap had gone through tons of changes in the years Boosie was behind bars, and upon his release, a video of him learning what a selfie is made the internet rounds. So it’s miraculous that Boosie is, if anything, a better rapper since he went to prison. As far as I can tell, there’s no precedent there. Boosie’s Life After Deathrow mixtape, one of last year’s best rap full-lengths, found Boosie in full furious-snarl mode. There was very little just-came-home joy in it. Instead, he was pissed off at the system that sent him away, pissed off at the friends who forgot about him, pissed off at himself for not being there for his family and his fans. (Boosie takes his responsibility for the people who love his music very seriously. He humanizes them in lyrics in ways that other rappers just don’t do.) And now, with Touch Down 2 Cause Hell, he’s brought that level of fire to the dubious endeavor of the major-label rap album.
Major labels don’t know what the fuck to do with rap albums, and they haven’t known for years. These days, they’ve mostly admitted that and stayed out of the way of their rappers, and that’s a good thing. Stars like Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky and Drake get to execute their visions unmolested. An untested pop-rap duo like Rae Sremmurd gets to make a brief blast of silliness that fits their strengths, and even a cult favorite like Earl Sweatshirt can release an insular, mumbling, shying-from-spotlights album. But between the late ’90s and the late ’00s, labels imposed a disconnected check-the-boxes structure on major-label albums. Artists had to have street songs, club songs, pop songs, and love songs, whether or not all those preexisting forms suited the rappers making them. Some transcendent figures, like Kanye West, managed to get away with ignoring the format, or with convincing powers that be that their cohesive albums stuck with the format. A few exceptional stars, like T.I. and Lil Wayne and early 50 Cent, made the format work for them. But if you were a B-level star — a Fabolous, a Paul Wall, a latter-day Mobb Deep — you were pretty much fucked, unable to establish a sonic identity outside of mixtapes and guest verses. That kind of meddling is mostly gone, but Touch Down 2 Cause Hell feels very much like an album of that era. It has that same connect-the-dots approach that effectively removes any chance of an artist crafting a coherent statement. Maybe Boosie made some capitulations because he was sick of the constant release-date pushbacks, or maybe he just delivered the sort of album he’d been conditioned to understand that major labels want. But Touch Down works anyway, because Boosie is rapping like a demon throughout and because it’s made with a sense of total sincerity.
The first half of Touch Down is pretty much constant, merciless fire. Boosie’s minute-and-a-half intro is an aggrieved, vengeful rant, and it establishes the tone immediately. The opening tracks have the same paranoiac intensity that Boosie brought to Life After Deathrow. He’s not over those years he spent in prison, and he’s taking it out on the world. There’s anger in the way he flings his high-pitched unstable molecule of a voice against the beat, but there’s sadness in his words: “No, this ain’t liven / Tryna kiss your kid through a fuckin glass window, non-contact.” (If we could harness the contempt he uses for the phrase “non-contact,” we could solve an energy crisis or two.) From there, he moves to guttural gun threats and strip-club shit talk in a way that makes its own kind of sense. His delivery keeps the momentum up, and “No Juice,” the best song from Life After Deathrow, makes an encore appearance. Boosie croons a couple of hooks, but he mostly leaves the task of keeping things catchy and approachable to guests like Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan, occupying himself by simply rapping as hard as possible. Boosie’s old rapping partner Webbie gets verses on back-to-back songs and makes the most of them, having way too much fun with the club track “On That Level.” (If someone catches you muttering “you might get a cash roll if you show that asshole” in polite company, blame Webbie.) It’s all hard-hitting and cathartic, and it just bangs like fuck.
Things change halfway through when Boosie tries his hand at relationship songs and fuck-the-haters songs and forced heartwarming songs. But even an R&B track like “Black Heaven” works because Boosie takes it seriously. The song’s conceit is kind of dumb — let’s imagine an afterlife where great black figures are looking down on us — and J. Cole sleeps through his guest verse. But Boosie attacks the idea with a sense of fondness and empathy, and the result is oddly disarming: “Michael Jackson, he probably maxin’ and relaxin’ / Him and Marvin Gaye making a classic.” Plenty of the other tracks are all too obvious, like when Rick Ross shows up to grunt his way through the otherwise-propulsive “Drop Top Music” or when Boosie recruits T.I. to guest on a song that’s a spiritual remake of T.I.’s “Whatever You Like.” But the only clanger on the whole thing is the breakup song with Chris Brown on the hook; everything else is, at the very least, solid. And as the album closes, Boosie uses one song, “Hands Up,” to protest against the recent waves of police brutality, and another, “I’m Sorry,” to apologize to his kids and his fans for forcing them to go without him for so long because of his own fuckups. During recent protests in places like Ferguson and Baltimore, Boosie’s old mixtape track “Fuck The Police” has basically replaced N.W.A’s “Fuck The Police” as the “Fuck The Police” anthem of choice, so Boosie needed to make a track like “Hands Up.” He didn’t need to make a song that admits his own flaws — few rappers ever do — but his anger at himself is just as effective as his anger at the authorities. Touch Down 2 Cause Hell might not be the rap classic Boosie has in him, but it’s a rock-solid piece of work from a vital, and special, rapper. At this point, nobody, even the New York magazine guys of the world, looks at Boosie as a fun rapper. But he’s a great rapper, and on Touch Down 2 Cause Hell, he refuses to be ignored.
Touch Down 2 Cause Hell is out now on Atlantic. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out today:
• A$AP Rocky’s early-release drug-rap zone-out At.Long.Last.A$AP, about which we’ll have more to say soon.
• Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s restless, funky, psychedelic Multi-Love.
• Little Wings’ quavering, childlike Explains.
• Sparse, impeccable dance-music queen Maya Jane Coles’ self-titled debut as Nocturnal Sunshine.
• Unicorns/Islands frontman Nick Diamonds’ giddy solo move City Of Quartz.
• Summer Camp’s sharp, assured indie-popper Bad Love.
• The Vaccines’ polished Brit-rocker English Graffiti.
• Rachel Grimes’ evocative instrumental LP The Clearing.
• So Stressed’s feverish post-hardcore debut The Unlawful Trade of Greco-Roman Art.
• Shana Cleveland & The Sandcastles’ bright, homespun Oh Man, Cover The Ground.
• Made In Heights’ bedroom-pop debut Without My Enemy What Would I Do.
• Town Portal’s disruptive noise-rocker The Occident.
• Black Baron’s messy, raucous Abject Skin.
• Husband/wife duo Two Sheds’ tense, dramatic Assembling.
• The tribute compilation Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs By Karen Dalton.
• Carpark’s basketball-themed benefit compilation 12″ Sweet Sixteen.
• The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger’s GOASTT Stories EP.
• Ballroom’s self-titled EP.