The vibe was pretty crazy last night as 2 Chainz showed up to spin a copy of new album Based on a T.R.U. Story over two weeks before the album was scheduled to officially be released. With the added frenzy of a Presidential Motorcade being set up just outside New York's 40/40 Club (leading to lots of Obama/Chainz jokes in the line out front, like "I hope he gets out of the limo, just says "TRU," and then speeds back off"), a surfeit of previous Chainz hits being spun live by DJ SNS, and eventual appearances from professional star co-signer Rick Ross and industry bigwigs like Warner CEO Lyor Cohen and one-time XXL editor-in-chief Elliott Wilson. Drinks were flowing, shrimp was plentiful, and excitement was in the air.
And then the album started.
Not to say that Based on a T.R.U. Story is an unenjoyable or particularly disappointing listen. It's a perfectly solid album, with your typical big-name features—you already know about Drake and Kanye from the singles, but there's also Lil Wayne, Chris Brown, The-Dream, Nicki Minaj and plenty others—and solid party-up production from the likes of Hit-Boy, Lex Luger, Mike Will and Lil Jon. And Chainz himself was decently engaging, dancing and occasionally rapping along to his album throughout, doing his damnedest to get the party started. But it seemed like there was a pressing issue that gradually dawned on everyone at the club over the course of the listening: Who really wants to listen to an entire 2 Chainz album?
You don't need us to tell you that 2 Chainz is not the most naturally gifted of rappers. He doesn't have the wordplay of a Kanye West, the vocal dexterity of a Nicki Minaj, the emotional connection of a Drake, even the authoritative presence of a Rick Ross. What he does have is an easily identifiable look (the dreads, sunglasses and chains, at least one of which was rocked by about half the people in attendance), an easily identifiable voice (especially as preceded by his trademark "TWOOOO CHAIIIIIIIINZ!!!!" auto-ID) and a generally affable personality, making him an always-welcome presence for a verse or so, as proven on hits like G.O.O.D. Music's "Mercy," Nicki Minaj's "Beez in the Trap" and Young Jeezy's "Super Freak."
But over the course of a whole song—and much more so, the course of a whole album—he just can't carry the load in the same way. His presence doesn't quite become tiresome, but it does get sapped of its charm with overexposure, and you realize that the guy doesn't have a whole lot to say or add to his songs. The most memorable lyrics of the night came when he quoted the chorus to New Edition's "Mr. Telephone Man" on his "I Luv Dem Strippers," and tellingly, the biggest cheers of the night were for the recognizable sound of The Weeknd's "The Birds," sampled for the hook of Deluxe Edition bonus track "Like Me." Chainz' songs sank or swam on the virtue of his producers, his guests and his hooks—his own presence was practically irrelevant.
This point was driven home by the back-to-back playing of the album's two lead singles, "No Lie" and "Birthday Song." The former is unquestionably the better of the two and is already a smash—"My #1," as Chainz kept referring to it, though unless he got a sneak peek at this Thursday's R&B charts, the song would appear to still have a #2 peak. Nonetheless, as big as the song is, if you were to make a list of the ten most-memorable things about the song, six of them would probably belong to guest rapper Drake (who also gets to sing the song's insta-classic "No lie, no lie, no li-eee-ii-iiieee" chorus), three of them would probably belong to producer Mike Will, and maybe Chainz would get one of them, though I'm not even sure what that'd be off-hand.
Meanwhile, despite DJ SNS claiming that it made the clubs in North Carolina go crazy, and despite 2 Chainz predicting that it would also be a #1 soon enough, second single "Birthday Song" didn't land with nearly the effect that "No Lie" did at the listening—attributable in part to the song only being out for a week, but also probably due to the fact that it just isn't that good a song. Unlike "No Lie," Chainz is the dominant presence on the song, providing his own hook this time, the unforgettable (for better or worse) "ALL I WANT FOR MY BIRRRTHDAYYYY IS A BIG BOOTY HO!" It's meant to be a singalong hook, and if the NC clubs are to be believed, someday it might be one, but it thudded last night, the beat uninspiring and guest rapper Kanye unwilling or unable to bail Chainz out with a show-stopping verse.
The event went downhill from there. 2 Chainz just wasn't meant to keep peoples' interest over the course of a whole album—he doesn't have enough to say, or enough of an interesting way to say it. As the album progressed, the club patrons appeared to stop paying attention to it, and Chainz, sensing that he was losing the crowd, started skipping around on the album, fading tracks out early, and announcing who the guest stars on his songs were where previously he had let the audience try to figure it out themselves. By album's end, the club had half emptied out, and Chainz seemed apologetic about still trying to command the club's attention. You had to feel a little bad for the guys—he was still being a good sport, but it was pretty clear that this wasn't the way he pictured his big night ending.
Though possibly a disappointing evening for the rapper, it's hardly a sign that it's all coming to an end for 2 Chainz. On the strength of the album's lead singles and his unavoidable presence elsewhere in hip-hop in 2012, T.R.U. Story will probably still put up respectable first-week numbers, and might even spawn another hit or two. He might not command "100K for a feature" forever, as he brags on the album, but he'll still be an in-demand guest-vocalist, and a good get for hip-hop megatours like Drake's Club Paradise.
However, if you were somehow under the impression that 2 Chainz was the next great talent in hip-hop, or a burgeoning megastar, or at least someone who had more to offer than he showed on his singles...well, not everyone in rap gets to be LeBron James, you know? There's still a place for Shane Battier and Mike Miller, as long as they recognize their limitations and accept their roles as bit players. And after last night, it's pretty clear that that's the pop culture destiny for 2 Chainz—to be a supporting cast member on a team with far more talented, brighter stars than he. Just stand in the corner and shoot threes for your career, Chainz, and you'll be fine.