It is often the case that hip-hop is at its most interesting when artists are testifying; testifying of truth, of the way things are, of their achievements, of their innermost feelings. The most memorable moments in the genre seem to come at times like the end of “What More Can I Say?” when the beat breaks down and the listener only hear’s Jay’s voice saying those famous lines: “I’m supposed to be one on everybody’s list/We’ll see what happens when I no longer exist.” Detroit’s Tee Grizzley borrowed heavily from the most honest songs of Meek Mill on his breakthrough song, “First Day Out,” even using that midway turn from awe to brutalism.
While many rappers write about capitalism as a salve for trauma, Grizzley separates himself from other emcees for the way the specificity of his verses imbues his songs with a sense of empathy. Even his severe flexes (“Hit the Rollie store with the Rollie on”) are built on memories and shorthand for verses about around-the-way friends. Activated starts in precisely this way. Fans are encouraged to empathize from the opening track, when they find Grizzley mid-conversation rapping, “Look at the bottom, I had to make it/I had to.” It forecasts hard-won truth that rappers like him have had to learn by experience.
Tee has spent his short time in the spotlight trying to perfect a mix of transparency and commercial ambition. He was mostly successful on My Moment. On Activated, he further commits to the radio campaign, even going so far as to feature Chris Brown on two songs, apparently buying into the idea that a guest appearance from the singer guarantees a hit. On “F*** It Off,” Breezy delivers an aggressive, by-the-numbers hook that concludes, “You think I work this hard to f*** it off?” It’s by-the-number. It’s clean. It’s impersonal—words that wouldn’t normally describe Tee Grizzley.
But the radio sensibility on Activated often dilutes Grizzley’s rawness and technical gifts rather than amplify them. Grizzley’s plain-spoken delivery tends to convey a sense of catharsis when he decides to jam-pack his verses or spit off the top. But he’s cumbersome running into the high-stakes soundscapes that are present on his album. Clunky verses like, “While you n****s talking down, I’m up b****,” on “Too Lit.” On another track, “2 Vaults,” he raps, “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 spit “Think s***/Sweet/You gon’/Bleed” punctuates a should-be banger in “Don’t Even Trip”—but he’s batting under .200 here.
The high-stakes production largely undoes Grizzley, too, save for the occasional exception, like the G-funk-infused “Low.” It doesn’t help his case that a lot of the hooks are barely above-competent half-mantras that sound like any rapper could have written them. “Bag” is well-intentioned, but the inspiration is lost in Grizzley’s auto-tuned singing. The same’s the case for “I Remember,” where Grizzley can’t quite emote, even while relaying his very real experiences with poverty.
But Activated mainly suffers because too much of it lacks photographic vision. That gift that earned him a Twitter shoutout from Jay-Z 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 vicious cycle that robs its victims of absolution, but Grizzley still tries to find a glimmer of solace by the end of the album when he raps lines like, “When I finally get married, can’t no other b**** f*** me.” He swears it with a laugh, which seems to undermine the sincerity that would be needed to balance out such a childish line. If the trauma can be vivid, so can the joy, but unfortunately, Tee Grizzley never offers that much of it.