Tee Grizzley has lived comfortably inside rap’s middle class since LeBron James immortalized the post-prison anthem “First Day Out” back in 2017. His insatiable rigor and brusque delivery initially reminded me of early Meek, and his first couple of singles carried that championship feel of perseverance and durable energy.
Songs like “D to the A” (with Lil Yachty) and “God’s Warrior” proved that Grizzley was at his best when creating neck-snapping bouts of fury with sprinkles of personal exposure. He’s never been the most nuanced writer in the world, but so is the case with a lot of rappers. Tee, at his worst, is inconsequential and mundane. His albums following My Moment have always felt top heavy and void of a tight narrative. Quality came in spurts, and flashes of genuine personality usually lead to great singles (“2 Vaults” and “No Effort” come to mind).
At just 26-years-old, Tee operates as an elder statesmen. He’s proven that a new wave of Midwestern street rappers can break ground in the mainstream. Michigan’s future has never looked brighter thanks to guys like Rio da Yung OG, Yn Jay, Shiityboyz, Louie Ray and 42 Dugg (and much, much, much more). It’s only a mater of time before one of them officially breaks out (though Dugg may have already with those two Lil Baby songs).
You would think Tee would do everything in his power to stay associated with this exciting time in his home state, but certain events have understandably left a bitter taste in his mouth. His relationship with Sada Baby dissipated after poor communication and time management, thus leading to Sada’s Grizzly Gang departure. On a more tragic note, his aunt and manager Jobina “JB” Brown was fatally shot and killed around a year ago on Detroit’s East Side.
The latter catastrophe inevitably became the backbone for Tee’s newest project “The Smartest.” The rapper was painted with a “JB” chain on the cover art, while lead single “Satish” functioned as a sentimental ode to his late aunt and coherent reasoning for why he’s currently on the outside looking in when it comes to Detroit-“Look how they did Dex, look how they did Blade/Look how they tried to do me, but got JB/Man that jealousy so real man, that hate so deep.” Tee will always be associated with Detroit just out of pure contingency, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be authentic about specific occurrences that changed his life.
Historically-speaking, Tee’s most compelling stories contain anecdotal chunks of introspection that almost come off as diaristic (and a little goofy). The Scott Storch-produced “Picture Of My City” offers the workmanlike mentality courtesy of Detroit’s bubbling talent without feeling to self-serious (as evidenced by the many fast food references).
Tee’s legitimacy and sense of humor should be no surprise at this point. He once said in a Breakfast Club interview that he continued to work at a Home Depot even while experiencing monetary gain from rapping (he wanted to stay grounded). On the track “Covid,” he ponders the pandemic’s movements while speaking on how much head he’s received since quarantine started in typical Detroit fashion. There’s a certain self-awareness present when he raps, “I don’t know whose city worse right now, but say a prayer/Seven hundred people died in one day, man, say a prayer.” He never makes some universal claim about the virus, which is something I can appreciate in a world where everyone thinks their political view is the right one. He’s more oblivious if anything, talking only about what he knows or has experienced.
The production rarely branches outside of the rubbery bass and menacing horror keys that continue to soundtrack modern Detroit rap. Helluva has a lot to do with this, but other mainstays like DJ Mustard also make an appearance. The listen can feel monotonous or insignificant on songs like “The Funeral” or the Meek-assisted “Lions & Eagles” because we’ve heard Tee perform in that lane before (doing a better job with it too). Others like “Double Standard” or “Daylight” barely leave a footprint due to abbreviated lengths or anticlimactic concepts.
Tee does balance these lackluster and oftentimes forgettable moments with standout pursuance. “Mr. Officer” is a Gospel-tinged anti-police anthem that finds Tee singing like a hopeless child who’s seen too much violence and destruction. Autotune is transparently used as stylistic left turn, and makes another appearance on the reference-heavy “Rap a Lot.” The latter is much less interesting in theory, but Tee’s facetious personality does enough to bolster an earnest instrumental.
The Smartest suffers from a lot of the same problems as past Grizzley projects. It’s a swift 40-minute listen that never feels too concise or focused. Some of his typical jargon plods along without a worthwhile storyline attached, while some other tracks and features (namely that Big Sean one, which is basically just a rehash of “First Day Out”) are transparently exploited as filler. But once again, there are other songs that have replay value thanks to sharp wit and perceptive lyrics. Tee has the ability and perseverance to reach a grander vision like Meek did on Championships. It really comes down to whether or not he cares enough to edit himself, or his idea of an album.