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Tee Grizzley - Activated Music Album Reviews

Tee Grizzley - Activated Music Album Reviews
The Detroit rapper’s debut album aims for a mix of transparency and commercial ambition, but he struggles to hold his own amid so much high-stakes production.

As in the church, hip-hop’s most arresting moments lie in the testimonial. Almost hookless, they’re explosively delivered biographies charged with a palpable sincerity. Cardi B’s confessional on Invasion of Privacy opener “Get Up 10” lends the project its urgency, and Meek Mill’s story on “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)” is synonymous with Philadelphia’s. Detroit’s Tee Grizzley borrowed heavily from the latter on his breakthrough, “First Day Out,” even using that midway turn from awe to brutalism.

While all three rappers may argue for capitalism as a salve for trauma, Grizzley stands out for the way the specificity of his verses pushes a sense of empathy to the forefront. Even his severe flexes (“Hit the Rollie store with the Rollie on”) are built on memories and personal shorthand for around-the-way friends. Activated, his debut album, starts just as intimately. We voyeuristically listen to a haunted Grizzley in mid-conversation: “Look at the bottom, I had to make it/I had to.” It augurs a hard-won truth.

Grizzley has spent his time in the spotlight trying to perfect a mix of transparency and commercial ambition. He was mostly successful in his prior solo outing, My Moment. On Activated, he further commits to the radio campaign, even going so far as to place Chris Brown on two songs, apparently buying into the myth that a feature from the singer guarantees a hit. On “Fuck It Off,” Brown delivers an aggressively by-the-numbers I’m-living-my-best-life hook that concludes, “You think I work this hard to fuck it off?” It’s clean and impersonal—Grizzley’s antithesis.

But Activated’s radio sensibility often dilutes his rawness and technical gifts rather than amplifying them. Grizzley’s plain-spoken delivery tends to convey a sense of catharsis when he decides to sprint off-beat. But here he’s cumbersome running into the high-stakes soundscapes, quickening to a halt with clunkers like, “While you niggas talking down, I’m up bitch,” on “Too Lit.” On “2 Vaults”: “Stacks big and green I call my pockets the new Hulk.” Grizzley isn’t completely out of his league within Activated’s cinematic scope—the staccato he uses to deliver “Think shit/Sweet/You gon’/Bleed” punctuates a should-be banger in “Don’t Even Trip”—but he’s shooting at a lower percentage here.

The high-stakes production—a mix of melancholic piano loops, brooding synths, and aggressive bass—undoes Grizzley, too. Save for the occasional exception, like the G-funk-infused “Low,” a lot of the palette here is, well, Meek Mill type beats. It doesn’t help his case that a lot of the hooks are barely above-competent half-mantras. “Bag” is well-intentioned, but the inspiration is lost within Grizzley’s synthetic singing voice. The same’s the case for the contemplative “I Remember,” where Grizzley can’t quite emote despite relaying his very real experiences with poverty. (It’s featured rapper YFN Lucci who delivers the poignancy: “I wonder why the real don’t live long”).

But Activated mainly suffers because too much of it lacks Grizzley’s photographic vision. That gift does pop up on the autobiographical album closer “On My Own,” where Grizzley walks us through stealing from his own friend, now deceased, to whom he can only offer, “Rest in peace.” Poverty is a cycle that robs its victims of absolution. But Grizzley still finds a glimmer of solace by the end: “When I finally get married, can’t no other bitch fuck me,” he swears with an impish laugh. It’s a childish ending line, but a sincere one. If the trauma can be vivid, so can the joy.


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