Rap needs characters. It’s a genre built on outsized, larger-than-life personas, on extroverted human charisma-bombs who willed themselves to superhero status. Right now, two of the best, biggest characters to come along in the last few years are on tour together. 21 Savage has figured his role out completely: He’s a rasping, soft-spoken ghoul, a bloodthirsty wraith whose threats are made all the more unsettling because of how bored and nonchalant he sounds when he’s issuing them. Young M.A, meanwhile, is a one-woman rebirth of classic ’90s New York goon-rap, a mean-mugging Brooklyn head-knocker whose shit-talk is made more complicated and fascinating because of her gender and sexuality. But if you show up early enough to the shows on that tour, you will encounter a rapper who is not a character. Tee Grizzley, from Detroit, is something else: He’s a hard-life veteran, a plainspoken tough guy whose carefully worded stories are clearly rooted in life experience. Rap needs people like him, too.
At this point, Tee Grizzley’s personal narrative is going to dominate any discussion of his music, so here goes: Tee grew up in a tough household in Detroit, living with his grandmother because his parents spent so much time in jail. By the time he became an adult, his mother was serving a 15-year sentence for drug trafficking, and his father had been murdered. Tee still went to college at Michigan State, the first person in his family to do so. But he fucked it up in his freshman year when he and a friend started breaking into dorm rooms, stealing money and electronics. He went on the run and, shortly afterward, robbed a jewelry store in Kentucky. He got caught and did time. While in prison, he had to think hard about where he wanted his life to go. He started reading and writing and, upon his release, he filmed his “First Day Out” video outside the prison where he’d spent his sentence. That video went viral, even catapulting Tee into the lower reaches of the Billboard Hot 100, and now he has a career. He’s only 23, and he has lived a life.
The best thing about My Moment, the mixtape that Tee released a couple of weeks ago, is that you can hear evidence that he’s really lived that life. When he talks about living outside the law, he does it with a pointed, granular specificity: “My first offer was 30 years, not a day lower / I told them crackers holler at me when they sober.” And where his tourmates project cold, controlled images, Tee goes in the opposite direction. There’s feeling in his voice. He projects the stress of someone who’s fighting for his life: “I went to trial back-to-back, bitch, I’m 2 and 0 / State of Kentucky banned me from every jewelry store.” But there’s also the elation of realizing that he’s left that life behind. “First Day Out” is built like Meek Mill’s “Dream And Nightmares (Intro),” that contemplative beginning leading to that hard, urgent beat drop. But on “First Day Out,” Tee doesn’t just sound stressed and purposeful. He sounds overjoyed.
Tee can sound convincing when he’s threatening to blow you to pieces: “All black and it’s late night / Assault rifle to steak knife / Big 40 the nigga up but the doc think it was a great white.” But there’s a sensitivity to his music that lends it another dimension. He’s at his best when he’s being vulnerable: “The first nigga from the fam to take that college road / My mom and pops didn’t see it, that’s what hurt me most.” At one point on “First Day Out,” he mutters, “Being broke did something to my spirit,” and it’s almost like he’s talking to himself rather than us. It’s there in his delivery, too. In interviews, Tee talks about how he grew up listening to R&B at his grandparents’ house, and he sings a lot. Even when he’s not singing, there’s melody in his rapping. And even though My Moment has a few beats from big-name producers like DJ Mustard and Sonny Digital, its most memorable beat is on “My Moment (Intro).” On that one, there’s no production; it’s Tee Grizzley rapping while banging on a table, the way he must’ve had to do in prison.
My Moment isn’t a masterpiece or anything. It’s a bit samey and repetitive, and it probably would’ve worked better as an EP. None of the tracks are quite as good as “First Day Out,” the one that grabbed everyone’s attention in the first place, though a few come close. (I love that Too Short-sounding bassline on “No Effort.”) There are no guests on the tape, and while that shows an admirable sense of self-assurance, the tape might work better if Grizzley had some other voices to bounce off of. (He’s teamed up with Lil Yachty for the single “From The D To The A,” but it’s not on the tape.) Still, My Moment does what a debut mixtape is supposed to go. It shows us that there’s something here, that we’re watching a rapper who has some things to say. And sometimes — not all the time, but sometimes — having something to say is all the character a rapper needs.
1. Mach Hommy – “Warning Shot”
Up until this week, Mach Hommy had been off my radar, but here’s what I now know: He’s from New Jersey, he was once a part of Westside Gunn and Conway’s Griselda crew, he once released an album called HBO (Haitian Body Odor) that he limited to 187 copies and sold for $300 apiece, Earl Sweatshirt loves him. And with this Alchemist-produced track, he has vaulted — in my mind, anyway — right up to the top of the list of Roc Marciano-inspired muttering East Coast rap expressionists.
2. Cousin Stizz – “Headlock” (Feat. Offset)
Cousin Stizz, from Boston, earned himself an audience last year with the mellow, considered, inward-looking album Monda. But on this track, he proves that he can flex with the best of them. And I mean that literally, since nobody is better at flexing than Offset.
3. Boosie Badazz – “Fuck The Police X 10″
A few days ago, Boosie accused police of stealing a million dollars’ worth of jewelry from him. After all the years that Boosie has spent in prison, that’s only a tiny sliver of his hate toward police. And on this song, he rages out against them spectacularly, literally asking inmates to rape imprisoned cops and telling people to burn down cities whenever police kill unarmed police. Are you going to sit here and moralize with a song like this? I’m not. “I hope that you die! / I hope you get put in a alligator pit and eaten alive!”
4. Lethal Bizzle – “I Win” (Feat. Skepta)
In the ranks of grime’s A-list, nobody makes better smash-your-head-through-a-window anthems than Lethal Bizzle. His “Pow! (Forward),” from 2004, is probably the best posse cut that the genre has ever produced, and his “Rari Workout,” from 2014, is among its best novelty songs. On this fucking battering-ram banger, he’s become the first rapper I’ve heard rhyme “Heathrow” with “deep throat,” which I probably enjoy too much.
5. Westside Gunn – “Easter Gunday 2″ (Feat. Mach Hommy & Keisha Plum)
Hey, it’s Mach Hommy again! And he and Westside Gunn are spending eight minutes talking greasy shit over a clanking, dystopian beat! Sign me up!