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When Detroit rapper Tee Grizzley first broke into the public’s consciousness via LeBron James’ workout-motivating Instagram, he was a fresh-faced, 23-year-old recent resident of Michigan’s Jackson State Prison. He was fresh off a shortened five-year stint for theft by unlawful taking or disposition for a series of robberies he and a friend had committed in the Michigan State University dorms. He was the son of drug dealers, his father murdered in 2012, his mother locked up for trafficking. He was, in short, like far too many young, Black American: Set up to fail, with the deck stacked against him, whether by fate, his own mistakes, or the machinations of a system set in place long before he was born Terry Sanchez Wallace of the West Side of Detroit.
By all rights, he shouldn’t be here.
But he had — has — a gift. It’s a gift that was evident from that first music video he shot in front of his temporary, enforced home, still dressed in his bright orange prison jumpsuit. At 6’3, 260 lbs., he cuts an intimidating figure in the “First Day Out” video, rhyming menacing bars about his criminal past and alleged current connections that would “take his head off his f*cking shoulders.” It’s the bars that draw your attention though; he’s got a steady, eerily measured flow for someone who rhymes so aggressively, his barrel-chested voice and clever punchlines coalescing into a truly impressive mastery of the art of rap.
By itself, that shouldn’t be enough. For all the online fervor that followed the NBA All-Star co-sign, the fact that Grizzley is good at rapping doesn’t justify a record deal or continued success in the music business. That’s not the way this rap game works, unfortunately. And while he continued to demonstrate his gift for crafting bullish verses full of bawdy boasts, the novelty of 3-minute songs with no hooks eventually wears thin. He had to prove he could do more, and that’s exactly what he’s finally done with his major label debut album, Activated.