Skip to main content

By Christina Lee
Photos by Brian Ziff
Photographer Assistant: Victor Rodriguez
Styled by Dominic Ciambrone, Blu Brewster
Key Makeup by Dominque Lerma
Set/Prop: Rian Calhoun

Inside a photography studio in downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District, 2 Chainz shakes his head with disapproval over my question: “When it comes to marketing your music, where do you get your inspiration? Is there a guru of sorts, like former dot-com business executive Seth Godin?”

The question requires some explanation. For years in his native Atlanta, 2 Chainz has created one interactive experience after another to promote his work as one of the most indispensable rappers of the trap era. He had a Craftsman bungalow painted Sherman-Williams Jaipur Pink, bringing the cover art of 2017’s “Pretty Girls Like Trap House” to life. (A haunted house version featured “zombie crackheads” and a stripper pole.) He owns several restaurants, including the original Escobar Lounge, named after the infamous drug lord and located within walking distance of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. And a pop-up nail salon led to Pamper Nail Studio, where he performed his NPR Tiny Desk concert, rapping and getting a champagne-soaked pedicure at the same time.

Atlanta didn’t need the Museum of Ice Cream, it had the Pink Trap House. 2 Chainz understands how his lived realities could become vicarious thrills for the masses. Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” music video and flow were clearly inspired by him, as was the fast-food chain Krystal when they named him its new “head of creative marketing” to help design one of their locations. I can’t explain why Godin’s name was the first to come to mind, but mentioning it to 2 Chainz was a grave mistake.

“I don’t get nothing from Seth Godin,” he says. “I get all the stuff from me—me being influenced from the streets, me being at ground zero, me being a very competent Black male, which I’m instilling into my son [Halo, age 6]. You can’t even find nobody to try and take credit for the Escobar Lounge and other ideas I bring to the table. Marketing ideas and concepts is what I do, it’s one of the things I’m very good and blessed at. So there’s not a book I read or a podcast I follow that influences me.”

Photo by Brian Ziff

Photo by Brian Ziff

The artist who once boasted “I’m Different” has been that way since before he was even known as 2 Chainz. The “SOUTH SIDE” tattoo running down his left calf, by Todo B., signaled his hometown pride long before he’d become part owner of NBA G League team the College Park Skyhawks. “I graduated high school in the Southside,” he says. “I ran the streets on the Southside. I had an idea to do a leg sleeve because everybody was doing arm sleeves and I wanted to be unique. Plus, I had very skinny legs.”

That tattoo came before one of the most memorable rebrands hip-hop has ever seen. In the ’90s and early 2000s, the man born Tauheed Epps rapped as Tity Boi and one half of the duo Playaz Circle. Playaz Circle had signed to Ludacris’ label Disturbing tha Peace, though the group scored exactly one hit, “Duffle Bag Boy.” That small taste of success, selling 2 million ringtones, wasn’t even thanks to Luda, but to Lil Wayne, who’d encourage him to leave the label. 2 Chainz would have been foolish not to listen. In August 2012, he received his first gold plaque for the Drake collaboration “No Lie” (which has since gone triple platinum) and released his Def Jam debut, the No. 1-selling “Based on a T.R.U. Story.” The name change, from his childhood nickname to something more aspirational, would forever alter his career trajectory. 2 Chainz could almost sense it the week before “Based on a T.R.U. Story” arrived when he previewed the album for journalists and tastemakers at the Atlanta-area Tree Sound Studios.

“A lot of instances back then, I wasn’t living in the moment because there were so many things happening for me,” he says. “But I got on a little later in my career, so to be receiving accolades so late in my career and have people accept my name change and solo compositions … I was a go-to feature for artists, but to be able to put out my own solo project, I felt like there was a lot of love in the building.”

Photo by Brian Ziff

Photo by Brian Ziff

Ten years and nearly 9 million albums sold later, 2 Chainz is once again working with his longtime mentor and favorite artist on the sequel to 2016’s “ColleGrove.” A Lil Wayne feature is no longer a lifeline, as it was back when he was Tity Boi. Instead, the “ColleGrove” sequel will be yet another sign of mutual respect. “It wasn’t a plan or anything,” 2 Chainz says. “It was only two of us voting for it, and it was unanimous.”

Indeed, from the moment the original dropped, a sequel seemed inevitable. 2 Chainz was behind the majority of the tracklist, since Lil Wayne was suing Cash Money for violating contract terms, withholding payments and delaying the release of his own solo work. Yet the chosen family resemblance—namely, the dazzlingly quick wit and proudly lowbrow sense of humor—still came across, in album highlights like “Bounce” and “Gotta Lotta.”

Since he and Wayne had hit the studio just the night before this interview, 2 Chainz was a bit cagey about “ColleGrove 2” details. But he does acknowledge one unfulfilled promise from the first “ColleGrove” sessions—the chance for fans to hear “Bars,” which was produced by Havoc of Mobb Deep and first revealed to Genius when “ColleGrove” arrived five years ago.

“I’d say the only song that would be on [“ColleGrove 2”] from the previous project would probably be ‘Bars,’” he says, “and that’s because it should have been on the first one. I dunno what I was thinking.”

Photo by Brian Ziff

Photo by Brian Ziff

What comes after that for 2 Chainz is shrouded in even more mystery. He called last summer’s “Dope Don’t Sell Itself” his “last trap album,” and he told the New York Times that future music will be “sample-based, digging in the crates, the more lyrical side of 2 Chainz.” As always, he’s a shrewd marketer.

But he’s also underselling the delightfully surprising choices he’s made thus far. Last year his name trended on Twitter for no reason other than to establish that he’s the “Eddie Murphy of rap,” with lines like “Dick so hard it make the metal detector go off.” He already interpolates and samples to tremendous effect, like when he croons parts of New Edition’s “Mr. Telephone Man” (“I Luv Dem Strippers”), deploys near-vintage Jeezy and T.I. to time-travel back to Atlanta’s rap past (“Trap Check”), and features Southern University’s Human Jukebox to pay loving tribute to HBCU marching bands (“Money Maker”). Moreover, he’s transitioned from condiment couplets (“OK, now catch up to my campaign / coupe the color of mayonnaise”) to album-long explorations of why the only two options for success sold to Black men are rap and basketball as he did on 2019’s “Rap or Go to the League,” co-executive produced by LeBron James.

All of this came to mind when I asked him to clarify what sounded like a rebrand: “How do you distinguish your past work from what lies ahead when you’ve already dug in the metaphorical crates and get remembered for your lyrics?”

“I’m always putting lyrical content in all of my stuff, even the watered-down stuff,” he says. “Right now the space I’m moving in is fine. But it’s not saying the first one or two things that come to mind. It’s about digging in and coming up with ideas and concepts that people can hang onto and enjoy for a long period of time.

“I just have way more harder stuff that people haven’t heard yet, you know what I mean?” he continues. “Not only do I have stuff recorded that’s super hard that people haven’t heard, but there’s stuff I haven’t even done yet that I know I’m capable of doing, and that’s a whole other layer to Tity Boi. So, I just know myself and know what I can bring to the table.”

Better yet, amid whatever marketing stunt he pulls to sell us on what’s to come, the absolute last thing he’ll need is a name change. 

Photo by Brian Ziff

Photo by Brian Ziff