One great thing about great rap albums: They can lead to more great rap albums. When he made Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City in 2012, Kendrick Lamar changed things, showing it was possible to make a rap album with great sweep and ambition that still did all the satisfyingly grandiose things rap albums are supposed to do, and he sold a fuckload of records in the process. Kendrick’s album established Kendrick’s persona — the thoughtful kid from the bad neighborhood who gets involved in bad things even though he knows better — and it used that persona to tell a large, overarching story. And by telling that story, Kendrick became a star. YG was paying attention. Now, YG is not Kendrick. He’s a West Coast street-rap everyman, a solid and conversational voice who rides beats ably and has an understated gift for small, human details but who never, until very recently, showed much in the way of ambition. A few years ago, YG was a one-hit wonder; he’d scored with the fuck-them-and-dump-them jam “Toot It And Boot It” in 2009, but he didn’t seem to have much more to say. But YG became one of the favorite collaborators of DJ Mustard, whose skeletal, melodically insinuating production style was becoming the dominant sound of West Coast rap. On several mixtapes spread out over several years, YG proved himself a great voice for that Mustard sound — dextrous and tough, capable of showing personality where needed but also happy to get out of the beat’s way. If My Krazy Life, YG’s official debut album, had just been the fullest LP-length expression of that DJ Mustard sound, it still would’ve been a great album. But it’s something else: A big, fully-formed concept LP that covers a ton of aesthetic and lyrical ground without ever losing its focus, giving context to YG’s character while still playing to his strengths as a rapper. It’s one of the most fully-formed and satisfying commerical rap albums I’ve heard in the past few years, and it absolutely establishes YG as a major voice. If you care about rap music, it’s instantly essential.
My Krazy Life checks all the boxes that a major-label rap album is supposed to check: The club song, the street song, the all-the-rapper’s-friends posse cut, the tender R&B song, the bitter R&B song, the I-love-you-mom confessional. In the past, that blueprint has transformed countless rap albums into rote, obvious, personality-free corporate products, but that doesn’t happen here. For one thing, there’s a musical consistency to it. Mustard produced almost all of the album, and the tracks that he didn’t produce still have his imprint. It never gets oppressive or samey because Mustard knows that this is his biggest career look and an amazing opportunity to show off all the things he can do: Elastic-bounce strip-club funk on “Left, Right,” anthemic post-hyphy on “My Nigga,” slickly tootling soul on “Sorry Momma.” But Mustard’s sharp finger-snap percussion and John Carpenter synths and enveloping spaciness are constants. Meanwhile, YG’s voice is plain and genuine enough that he can talk about fighting and robbing and fucking and stressing out and regretting his own stupidity without any of those things violating the on-mic persona he’s built for himself. He commits completely to each of the songs, and none of them sounds like a record-exec capitulation. And more importantly, the album unites all of them into one big, overarching story.
My Krazy Life is structured, more or less, as an episode in YG’s life. He starts out partying with his friends before they all get together and break into a few houses to raise money. (The interstitial track “Meet The Flockers” is a “10 Crack Commandments”-style tutorial: “First, you find a house and scope it out / Find a Chinese neighborhood because they don’t believe in bank accounts.”) Then, he spends some time with girls and, in the process, reveals his own character flaws, brazenly cheating on his girl while at the same time getting pissed off at his girl for cheating on him. In a fit of stress and frustration, he gets into criminal dealings with a guy who should be his friend but who means him harm. He ends up in a gun battle, but nobody gets shot. Instead, he ends up in jail on a breaking and entering charge, tearfully apologizing to his mother and, when he gets out, telling off the girl who ignored his calls when he was locked up. That final song (before the bonus tracks) is “When I Was Gone,” the crew song, and it serves the same pull-back-the-camera function that “Compton” served on Good Kid. YG’s issues, we learn, aren’t unique; all of his friends have similar stories about losing their connection to their girls while they’re locked up, and any of them could’ve presumably told stories like the ones YG told on the rest of the album.
Like Kendrick, YG uses skits with his mother and his friends to hold the album together, to move from one section to the next. And also like Kendrick, YG hasn’t exactly made an airtight narrative concept album; he’s stretched out central idea so the album will include all the songs it needs to include. But it’s still a deeply rewarding listen, with one song setting up another and little musical cues leading into the hits that we’re already amped to hear. YG already had singles before the album dropped, and they’re smartly spaced-out across the album. At the end of “Meet The Flockers” song, YG’s associate Tee Cee quotes “My Nigga,” YG’s biggest solo hit, which leads right into those tingling keyboard notes of the “My Nigga” intro. And while “My Nigga” has the sort of title and chorus that send YouTube comments sections into paroxysms of racial weirdness, the song itself is the best, purest, simplest ode to male friendship that I’ve heard since Rancid’s “Fall Back Down.” And it works within the narrative fabric of the album, too. If YG wasn’t so blindly loyal to his friends — or if he hadn’t let his girl problems and general stress cloud his head — he wouldn’t have let himself get involved with the fake friend who tries to rob him at the end of “1AM.”
And when he talks to his mother on “Sorry Momma,” he can’t resist putting some of the blame on her first: “Momma said I ain’t acting like her son / Because I’m getting money, momma; you ain’t giving me none.” They go back and forth for a while, and YG (with Mustard playing with the pitch of his voice to change him into his mother, an old Dr. Dre trick) giving equal voice to his mother’s complaints: “Yo gon’ treat me like this and you know I have seizures? / You know I take pain pills for headaches and fevers.” At the end of the song, he’s hanging his head, confessing to stealing money from her purse and extolling her strength for overcoming half-blindness and coming to the painful realization that his problems are his own fault: “I know I did wrong.” But when he’s talking to his ex one song later, he’s back to ignorant bluster: “My momma said I should accept your apology / But fuck that, that’s just reverse psychology.” The album opens, in skit form, with YG’s mother telling him that he’ll end up in prison like his father if he doesn’t straighten up, and throughout the album, he casually mentions his absent father a few times, implying that maybe his father could’ve saved him from that same fate if he’d been around. And with its ending, the album leaves open the idea that YG is still a ways away from finding enlightenment, and he could easily end up right back in prison.
This is a big-money album with commercial expectations, and it’s bald enough in its intentions to feature (really great) Drake and Kendrick Lamar guest-verses (on consecutive songs, no less). But it’s also a tight and focused family affair. Most of the collaborators come from YG and Mustard’s inner circle. Ty Dolla $ign, for instance, participates in two very different songs, singing the hook on “Sorry Momma” and co-producing the Kendrick-featuring stress-fest “I Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin).” And even when YG’s boasting about money, he’s doing it in relatively small and approachable ways, not indulging in Rick Ross-style tycoonism. On “Who Do You Love,” when YG crows that his Bank Of America account has six figures, that’s about as grandiose as he gets. He doesn’t even talk about selling drugs; the burglary stuff represents a relatively small-time criminal enterprise I haven’t heard a rapper discuss this extensively before. He does all of this candidly and artfully, and he gets all the ideas across without compromising the elegant, propulsive pulse of Mustard’s production. This is a rap album without a single weakness. Musically, it’s beautifully constructed. It’s about things. The straight-up rapping is great. All of the guests come through. The songwriting, especially on those singles, is top-shelf. And taken all together, it’s just a stunning achievement.
I saw YG a couple of times at SXSW last week, and he’s not really carrying himself like a rap star yet. He’s just a tiny bit awkward and halting, he gives too much of his stage over to hypemen and friends, and he relies too much on cheesy crowd-interaction cues. When he brought Snoop Dogg to the stage at the Fader Fort, the difference in onstage experience was stark and immediately noticeable. But then, Snoop probably didn’t look too assured onstage when he made Doggystyle 20 years ago. There are plenty of parallels between My Krazy Life and Doggystyle: A gifted young West Coast rapper with style and momentum, hooking up with a visionary producer and crafting an album that should be way beyond what he can do. So even if YG’s not a great live show or a seasoned rap star yet, it’s fine. He’s already made an amazing debut album. That’s the hard point, and the important part. The rest will come in time.
My Krazy Life is out now on Def Jam.
Other notable releases this week:
• The War On Drugs’ stunning ’80s-rock meditation Lost In The Dream.
• Perfect Pussy’s incendiary debut window-smasher Say Yes To Love.
• Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s dusty, intense underground rap statement of intent Piñata.
• The Sufjan Stevens/Son Lux/Serengeti project Sisyphus’s self-titled debut.
• Broken Social Scene frontman Kevin Drew’s solo scrawl Darlings.
• Skrillex’s out-of-nowhere full-length debut Recess.
• Twilight’s all-star black-metal swan song III: Beneath Trident’s Tomb.
• Tycho’s instrumental post-rocker Awake.
• Black Lips’ classic-rock-indebted gutter-crawl Underneath The Rainbow.
• La Dispute’s open-hearted post-hardcore attack Rooms Of A House.
• Shit Robot’s history-steeped DFA-sound revival We Got A Love.
• Ringworm’s blackened, hardcore-inflected bulldozer Hammer Of The Witch.
• The Coathangers’ garage-rock party Suck My Shirt.
• Coffinworm’s all-consuming sludge attack IV.I.VIII.
• Vampire’s theatrical, melodic self-titled retro-metal trip.
• Starwalker’s self-titled EP.