If nothing else proves that the US justice system desperately needs to be reworked, it’s this not-so-fun fact: In the same week that Watts rapper 03 Greedo came home from a nearly five-year prison bid for nonviolent offenses, the trial against his closest stylistic analog, Atlanta rapper Young Thug, began in Fulton County. Thug faces a litany of charges but all of them stem from just one evidentiary example: Thug’s own lyrics, in which he shouts out his label/crew, YSL, which now stands accused of being a street gang by Georgia state authorities. They argue that Thugger’s shout-outs constitute evidence of his membership in that gang — and even his leadership thereof.
Now, I’m not going to argue that either man is innocent. We just don’t know enough to say whether or not they’ve done the things they were accused of. A jury was convinced by apparently compelling evidence that Greedo did; a jury will have to be convinced the same for Thug. But Greedo was given five years for possession of a firearm in a state that otherwise promotes its open-carry laws as an advantage over other states’ more restrictive gun laws. And there is no way that any artist should be brought up on charges of racketeering just for rapping about their life and their business. The Johnny Cash comparison has been belabored to the point of beating a dead horse, but let’s face it; he was never indicted for shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die because everyone seems to get that this event was merely a lyrical device.
This week, Greedo released his first post-prison mixtape, the aptly-titled Free 03, produced by Mike Free. Although the timeline of its recording remains unclear, it appears to have been recorded at least in part during the flurry of activity that saw the Watts style-switcher collaborate extensively with a variety of producers to ensure he’d have enough material to bear out his sentence (almost, but not quite; he pretty much ran out of pre-recorded projects midway through the pandemic with his last album Load It Up Vol. 01 with Ron-Ron dropping in 2020). At least some of it sounds like it was recorded over a prison phone, much like Greedo’s frequent collaborator Drakeo The Ruler did with his own post-incarceration mixtape Thank You For Using GTL.
In fact, Drakeo makes an appearance on Free 03, on the song “No Free Features.” It’s a truly heartwrenching moment as you realize this could well be the last time we hear the Watts-bred duo on a record together, as Drakeo was murdered in late 2021, just months after concluding his own years-long nightmare encounter with the criminal justice system. That Drakeo spent two of the final three years of his life fighting similar charges to those currently faced by Young Thug hammers home this harrowing connection. Drakeo was never even convicted of a crime and was, in fact, acquitted of the original charges against him only to have new charges filed and his bail denied.
In a similar fashion, Young Thug was locked up for the better part of a year before his trial began this week, during which time the state shrewdly used a home raid to connect enough evidence to at least make something stick. Those charges, mainly amounting to firearm possession, are eerily reminiscent of those that got Greedo sentenced to over four years in prison. And while the content of Free 03 necessarily does not address the charges against him or his time inside, it ends on a chilling rumination, “If I Die” — which is especially spooky when you consider that Drakeo did so less than a year after his own release.
While the quality of Free 03 belies its likely rushed production process — for what it’s worth, the latter half is better, finding Greedo employing the slippery vocals that had set him apart from so much of the LA underground before his sentencing — it also highlights just what these aggressive sentences really cost. The one commodity you can’t get back is time; whatever financial setbacks are caused by derailing artists’ careers with extensive prison time and trumped-up charges, the true loss is time: Time that they could be helping their communities, as Thug did when he paid bail for dozens of Fulton County inmates for the holidays two years ago, time that they could be giving opportunities to their friends and admirers to escape the constraints of street life (YSL Records, gang or not, employed dozens of rappers, singers, and producers who might otherwise be out there causing real harm), and time they could be inspiring the next generation of aspiring artists to skip the street life entirely.
The fact is, even violent offenders — which the state has yet to prove most of the artists it’s targeted really are — deserve chances to at least try to make amends. They are more of a net positive to society generating income, engaging in philanthropy, and offering imperfect role models to fans than they are languishing in cells at a cost to the state. Meanwhile, there are thousands of inmates currently incarcerated for nonviolent offenses who aren’t artists of whom the same could be said. We latch onto the artists because their fame makes them obvious examples, but really, their plight is just a microcosm of the one faced by thousands of ordinary citizens every day. 03 free, but the time has come to free us all from the trap our prison industrial complex has boxed us into.
Free 03 is out now on Alamo. Get it here.
Young Thug is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.