Jeezy Is Ready to Graduate From the Trenches and Begin His Second Life: Exclusive Interview


Fourteen years ago, Jeezy blossomed into rap's biggest trapper with his magnum opus Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101. Songs like "Soul Survivor" and "Go Crazy" embodied a hustler's spirit that kept the streets entranced. For years, the Atlanta MC defined his career  hood gospel for those seeking affirmation, but on Aug. 23 Jeezy will graduate from the trenches and unleash TM 104, the last installment from his revered series and final album of his decorated career.

"I kept it me, and I kept it solid," Jeezy tells Billboard in an exclusive interview. "All the records that I did, even the ones that didn't make the album, they were all true to me. It's what true thug motivation means. Just like everything that I've done, I put my heart into it like it was my first album. Like it was my first ad-lib. Like it was my first rodeo."

Though Jeezy is largely mum on features and producers for TM 104, he described "Already Rich," a soul-stirring anthem featuring Cee Lo Green that speaks to the importance of self-value and enrichment. 

"Cee Lo Green, he's soul and he's real," says Jeezy. "His voice is pain. It's raw, and it's raspy. He's a legend in his own right, but at the same time, you hear the pain in his voice. You hear the rough, the grit. And I wanted that, and that's why we got him for that record."

Jeezy's ability to tell poignant tales about overcoming adversity made him the block's top motivational speaker. In hopes of curating another "street bible," the trap savant returned to his roots and listened to previous Thug Motivation albums to craft one last dose of inspiration. 

"Now it's a nice time for the real world," he says. "Now it's time for the real goal — the real accolades. You already put in the work, and you pass with flying colors. So this is the celebration."

Billboard caught up with Jeezy to speak on the 14th anniversary of TM 101, what fans can expect from his last album and more. 

Today marks the 14th anniversary of TM 101. What’s your proudest moment from that album?

Aw man, the proudest moment was just all the trials and tribulations I went through making that project. I was one foot in and one foot out in the music game and a lot of real life things were happening for me. My homie was getting indicted, I lost my voice, I had to get surgery, my album got leaked a month before it was supposed to come out. I was going through my survivor’s remorse of being halfway successful and not being in my element anymore, so it was a weird space as far as my mental because it’s somewhere I’ve never been before. 

Getting through all that and really believing in my words and my music and my movement and my mindset — that was the proudest moment for me, because I pushed through all that and that album did two mil plus. And I recorded that album in my homeboy’s basement. Keep in mind that I couldn’t even talk so I had to mix the album by writing down the changes on a piece of paper for the engineer to know what I wanted to turn up and turn down because I didn’t have a voice, nor did I know if I was going to be able to speak again. That was my first time experiencing adversity for the whole world to see. 

The whole world didn’t know what I was up against, and I was up early in the morning, late every night, fighting for my existence, fighting for my freedom, fighting for my words to be heard. I made it through, so TM 101, with my blood, sweat and tears, will always be a milestone for me. I’m proud for getting it done and the streets for really supporting me. You got your whole life to write your first album and that was my first gift to the world, you know? So that was a proud moment to push through everything that I was going through.

As you said, you went double plat, landed at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 when it debuted. The TM series is probably one of the best album series in hip-hop. You got Jay with the Volume series and you got Wayne with Tha Carter series and Kanye with his college series. Where does the TM series rank in all-time hip-hop?

I think it’s one of the truest series. I think people get it. When I look at The Blueprint and what Jay has done, and then I look at TM, even now I’m into a lot of motivational speakers. I’m into their craft and how they connect with people and for me. I didn't realize that was something I was doing early on. I just wanted to be heard and tell people what I was going through.

If you really think about it, a TM series is like Bible scriptures. There are things you can't just make up and the people going through those things understand them the most. When you think about scriptures and if somebody's going through depression, certain scriptures are uplifting. If somebody's going through illness, certain scriptures make them strong. If you think about the TM series from The Inspiration to 103: Hustlerz Ambition to Thug Motivation, if you listen to the subtitles, they're like chapters.

Being able to change people's outlook on what they're going through. The Thug Motivation series does that because I've never met someone when I'm out that says, “I like TM because of a song.” It’s “TM 101 saved my life” or “TM 103, I was in college and I was listening to it and that’s the only way I got through.”

And by the way, you gotta have some big nuts to tell somebody you motivated thugs, because these are the people that don’t need motivation. They just go and they jump in head first and most of us end up in the penitentiary and the rest of us end up in a graveyard. I was the one cat that made it through that and I seen so much that it made me numb, but it also made me want to spread what I saw so that I can help people overcome what they was going through. The TM series represents adversity and represents the struggle, overcoming obstacles. It represents evolution. If you look at it, it’s sturdy steps of evolution, like watching somebody grow and bigger and wiser and better.

If as a fan of 101 you understood what I stood for and you understand what I'm still standing for now, which is why a lot of my sound doesn't just change with time. You don't go to church and the preacher’s message changes. The roots are still there. The streets will always be the same learning we can go to these different platforms, but it has to get to the people that need it the most, and everybody else is just enjoying the music. The word that best describes it to me is “street bible.”

Did you revisit any of the TMs for inspiration when creating TM 104?  

I listened to The Recession. I still don’t know why I didn’t make that a TM, I wasn’t thinking. TM has a sound that’s global, street, gutter, and real songs so you get that element. Making TM 104, I absolutely listened to them. I just zoned out and put myself out of the equation and I'm like, “Okay, what is this guy talking about and why was he talking about that?”

And as I'm writing TM 104, I'm connecting the dots because I'm just like, I have to continue on. It’s almost like a guy who writes great books, Rich Dad, Poor Dad. You have to know that at some point he has to go back and reflect on certain things that he already said because he wants to keep his message consistent. So for me it’s like listening to the sonics. What makes TM different from all the rest of my albums and all the rest of my body work? The sounds, the message, the tone, the cadence, and that's what I already listened for.

When I was writing 104, I wanted to go back to what I know but I want to sound new but at the same time, I don't want to feel like I'm trying to keep all the times because real music and a real message is timeless. And that's why it was effective listening to those records because they got me to feel his hype as they did when I first heard them in the gym or on the road or whatever. It’s the same feeling when I said certain things so that's what I want for 104 and the only way that I can do that is by listening to all those bodies of work as a whole not good a song.

If TM 104 Jeezy could go back and talk to TM 101 Jeezy, what would he say?

"Don't change a motherfuckin’ thing, man. Stay unapologetic. Stay you and stay true and don't let this industry you know shift you or turn you or make you feel like you shouldn't be you." I started out what I was and I always wanted to evolve. That's always been my end goal, to evolve. You can evolve by staying you and staying true, but your mindset can change. You can become bigger, better.

For TM 101 Jeezy, I’d tell him I’m proud because I know where you going with this. This will be your first contribution to the world and to hip-hop and to rap and to the South and to all the trappers. I would tell him I'm proud because you opened the door for a whole genre of music. All these cats that you see just coming out of the streets, that are making music now to the point where like, you can't even count them all because they saw what I done firsthand and they saw me in the streets, so they knew it was possible.

So for me, I'm proud of that guy because he made it possible. Not to say that if it wasn't for him it wouldn't be that, but he opened the door and he didn't lock it back. They left the door wide open. It was like y'all come over here and let’s do this. And I'm proud of that guy, man. I’d just tell him to keep his head up and his chest out because he did the impossible. He stood on the same block, the same street as everybody else, but he had a vision, he had he had goals, he had dreams, and the ambitions. He didn't let up no matter what came in at him. I’ll forever be proud of that guy for that reason alone. He stayed solid, he didn’t fold, he didn’t break. He kept pushing and he kept going.

In what ways did you make sure this was going to be a special goodbye for your hardcore fans?

I kept it me and I kept it solid. All the records that I did, even the ones that didn’t make the album, they were all true to me. It’s what true thug motivation means. Just like everything that I've done, I put my heart into it like it was my first album. Like it was my first adlib, like it was my first rodeo. I didn't go into this saying I've got millions of records under my belt, or I got other things going on so I can't focus.

I actually share everything that I had going on down to record this. You would’ve thought I was trying to get a record deal. I wouldn't leave the studio. Leaving the studio at two o'clock and coming back. Being there all night coming right back at five. It was like a job and I was doing triple shifts. I'm there for all the mixes. I was there for all the features. I was there for all the production. If something needed to be changed or altered like I would do it as if this was my first album or my first mixtape. I didn't go in there and be a little more comfortable now. I was hungry as I was the first time I've seen microphone.

You’ve worked with everybody in the game from Jay-Z to Andre 3000 to Kanye. Is there one feature you were finally able to get for TM 104?

I wish I got that Tupac feature, man. But for 104 I didn't even really play the name game. I reached out to people that I felt would make the records real. Don’t get me wrong, I will never knock nobody’s success. But certain times in your career, people will be like, “Oh, you should put such and such on it because he’s hot right now.” Nope. I’ve played that game so many times and when I hear the record five years from now I'm like, “Oh shit, I could’ve….” So for me, I just put people who I feel can get the soul off. 

With “Already Rich,” with Cee Lo Green, he’s soul and he’s real. His voice is pain. It’s raw, and it’s raspy. He’s a legend in his own right, but at the same time, you hear the pain in his voice. You hear the rough, the grit. And I wanted that and that’s why we got him for that record. And if the record is about being already rich, you could be broke, but if you’re rich at heart and rich in your mind, then you’re already rich. If you’re rich, you're going to carry yourself like you that and you're not gonna let nobody talk down on you.

You're not gonna let nobody run over you. You got integrity, and that's the beginning of it because you can give somebody money, and they’re shallow, and they're going to be even more shallow in a world with nothing to go be more ignorant. If you’re rich in hard work and in integrity, you just got to accumulate the fun. That's not impossible. People do that shit all day. And I know Cee Lo could pull something like that off. I haven’t looked at Cee Lo like he’s one of the biggest pop stars, but his voice is unchallenged. 

I already know what you’ve done with Hov, whether it was “Seen It All,” “I Do,” “Put On (Remix),” or “My President Is Black (Remix).” Are you sitting on a Hov track for your swan song? 

It's a big possibility. I've got my man on speed dial. We gon’ figure this out one way or another.

Dwyane Wade finished the last game of his career with a triple double. Kobe closed out his career with a 60-point game. What do you predict will be the final outcome for your last album, in terms of critical acclaim?

Man, I just think it’s gonna feel like a celebration for the grind, for the streets, and for the people. This ain’t even about me. We’re graduating together. We got through a whole series.This isn’t about me, it’s about the people.

It’s about speaking for those that are oppressed and demonized that they can't speak for themselves and they can't fight for themselves. I just feel like this is their album. This is their talk and I feel like it's a celebration, like we’re gonna go fucking turn our tassels and throw our hats in the air as a class of 2019. We’re taking it to the next level.

We ain't just trappers no more. We’re entrepreneurs. Everybody can be a trapper. We doing what they say we couldn't do and this is when you get your graduation papers, you walk across the stage. You can go out in life and do everything that you gotta do is like the kid that graduated from high school last year. Now it's a nice time for the real world. Now it's time for the real goal — the real accolades. You already put in the work and you pass with flying colors. So this is the celebration.

What does the phrase “thug motivation” mean to you in 2019 versus when it came out in ‘05?

It means to motivate others by your actions, by your faults, by your losses, by your wins, by your integrity, by who you are as a man, woman or child. And to give others the game you received and for your trials and tribulations to spread. I just announced the Thug Motivation Challenge and I’m excited to watch the people who have something to say. Everybody got something to say. You could learn from the kids, man. Thug motivation is reaching back out and motivating people that don’t necessarily get motivation and don’t necessarily get that pat on the back. That’s what it is to me, for the oppressed, for the ones who are told they could never.

We gotta go bring light to the dark side, to the people that are in the dark and are confused and think that life never gave him a fair shot. Nah, we gon’ fight the spiritual warfare, the financial warfare. Don't say it just personal and self worth. Whatever it is that you want to achieve, you can do it. That's why all the way across the board, I never let them box me in and I shout that from the mountain tops. If you want to be in shape, be the best you can be. You want to be a businessman, you could be that. If you want to make music, do that, but at the same time build your empire. You don't have to be the guy to just put an artist on. Go do some tech stuff. Go do what you want to do because it ain't no right way. Be spreading the game as you doing it. That's all we have. 

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