NBA YoungBoy is in jail right now, and he might not come out for the next decade or two. A few weeks ago, Austin police raided the club where YoungBoy was booked to perform that night, taking him out in handcuffs and sending him home to Baton Rouge. There, he’s being held on a $200,000 bond, awaiting trial for two counts of first-degree attempted murder. Police say that, earlier in November, YoungBoy had taken part in a drive-by shooting. If you believe them, he was one of three passengers in the car, and he was one of the people shooting. The driver got a flat tire and crashed the car soon afterward, but YoungBoy and the other three assailants escaped on foot. At that Austin club, fans caught YoungBoy’s arrest on camera.
Baton Rouge is a small city, and a rough one. It’s produced some major rap stars, but it seems as though no rapper can really escape the city without first spending some serious time in prison. Kevin Gates is serving out his sentence right now, paying for the moment when he decided to kick a female fan in the chest while performing; it is not his first sentence. Boosie BadAzz came home last year after spending about five years behind bars, facing a cascading wave of charges that started with a simple weed arrest. During his time in prison, Boosie was looking at a possible death penalty for conspiracy to commit murder, a charge he eventually beat. Boosie feels that Baton Rouge police were unfairly targeting him. He has a point. In cities like New York and Chicago, police departments have histories of specifically targeting street-rappers. And in Baton Rouge, at least to an outsider, the police vendetta against rap stars seems even more vicious. Gates obviously should be held responsible for his attack, and rappers are subject to the same laws as everyone else. But in Baton Rouge, it seems like even rap stardom offers no real chance for escape from fucked-up systemic oppression.
NBA YoungBoy is a special case. He’s 17. He looks like he’s 17. With his case, that won’t matter; under Louisiana law, he can be charged as an adult. And as with Gates, YoungBoy should face consequences if the charges against him are even a little bit true. But given the history of rappers and police in Baton Rouge, it’s impossible to take his guilt as an article of faith. And if YoungBoy does end up spending years of his life in prison, it’ll be a horrible waste. In the past year, he’s emerged as a vital and promising rapper. He could have a brilliant career ahead of him; a lengthy prison sentence is one of the saddest possible ends to his whole story.
YoungBoy’s videos — many of which have millions of views — paint a troubling picture of what it’s like to be a kid in Baton Rouge right now. In those clips, YoungBoy and his friends brandish enormous arsenals — pistols, assault rifles, submachine guns, everything. Some of the people holding those guns are tiny kids. YoungBoy and his friends stage pretend shootings, including at least one that looks an awful lot like the shooting for which YoungBoy is facing prison time. But all of that falls under artistic license, and these guys are far from the first rappers to show off guns in videos. And anyway, they’re kids, and they act like kids. In one video, along with those guns, they show off a Chuckie doll, about the most adolescent way to tell the world that ooh, look, you’re scary. They act like they’re about to race their cars. Girls never show up. YoungBoy sometimes plays with a pet dog, or with a pet snake. YoungBoy has some seriously gnarly scars on his forehead, but they aren’t from street violence; they’re souvenirs from a time when, as a little kid, he broke his neck and had to wear one of those halo braces bolted to his skull. He smiles a lot. And his music has a relentless teenage energy that’s just enormously appealing.
Louisiana rappers have some of the best voices, and YoungBoy’s grizzled-but-chirpy singsong is a prime example. He leans into his drawl, working tiny melodies into his verses and lending a weightless joy to his genuinely unsettling street-talk. He raps about violence, but he also raps about logging serious time in the studio, about wanting to make something of himself, about recovering from the trauma of watching his young friends die. (The “NBA” of his name stands for “Never Broke Again,” which is pretty great, even if his logo is the Air Jordan logo with MJ clutching a gun instead of a basketball.) His success is entirely organic. There’s no label or publicist behind him, and he’s racked up all those YouTube views organically, by making sticky and intense songs that demand to be heard more than once.
He’s a word-of-mouth success, which, at least from where I’m sitting, is the best thing a rising rap star can be. And he works hard, too. In just the past few months, he’s released two new mixtapes, 38 Baby and Mind Of A Menace 3, as well as the best-of-2016 collection Before I Go Reloaded. All that work shows YoungBoy to be an old-school Southern mixtape grinder, a rapper with serious gifts and an even more serious work ethic. I hope he gets a chance to become what he could be, that he avoids becoming one more what-if story.
1. Madlib & MF Doom – “Avalanche”
The song itself is years old, which might explain why DOOM sounds like he’s trying in ways that we just haven’t heard in recent years. But even taking that into account, this is a minor revelation, a powerful reminder of the drifting free-associative beauty that these two can conjure when they’re on the same page. With a universally praised album like Madvillainy, I can sometimes find myself questioning my own memory, wondering if it really was that good. And yes, this track is here to tell us. It was.
2. Gucci Mane – “Yet”
“Drop me in the jungle where the lions at / I come back later in the lion jacket with the matching hat.” Gucci!
3. Oddisee – “Things”
Oddisee does things differently. For instance: When he makes a song about tiny accumulating stresses and the anxiety of uncertainty, he makes it an immaculately produced disco-rap ass-shaker. And he makes that contrast work for him. He knows what he’s doing.
4. Juelz Santana – “Ol’ Thing Back” (Feat. Jadakiss, Method Man, Redman, & Busta Rhymes)
In which a mob of old New York rappers decides to get together and make a late-’90s Tunnel banger, without ever quite giving up the bitterness that naturally comes from being an old New York rapper.
5. Donae’O – “Black” (Feat. JME & Dizzee Rascal)
A grime banger that moves with the futuristic, globalist grace of funky house or Afrobeat without sacrificing too much of the wild intensity that makes grime special. If we get a few more tracks like this, will UK garage just magically come back?
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
the 4 stages of hearing “oochie wally” in the club pic.twitter.com/TWdPWcwSxF
— Rikky! Rikki! Rikkè! (@rwxoxo) December 20, 2016