Two years ago, YG made a better album than anyone thought possible. Before My Krazy Life, YG was a solid, unexceptional Compton street-rapper who was lucky enough to have a working relationship with West Coast man-of-the-moment DJ Mustard. But My Krazy Life built on the inspiration of Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, seamlessly folding its radio hits into a narrative concept album about a day in the life of someone deep in small-time gang life. Musically, the album’s aesthetic came from Mustard and from the spacious, minimal propulsiveness that he helped bring to rap music. But YG proved that, with the right sense of vision, that sound could work as the basis of a full-on album, a carefully constructed and personal statement. Together, Mustard and YG came up with a piece of music that defined a place and a time. And with that album, YG outperformed expectations so drastically that it would’ve been completely fine if he’d just sunk into the B-list rapper rotation after that. He’d already punched above his weight class. He’d already made his mark. He could’ve just cruised after that. Instead, with the brand-new Still Brazy, YG has gotten better, and he’s done it without Mustard.
Still Brazy doesn’t have the narrative arc that My Krazy Life did. YG isn’t rapping in character anymore. Instead, what we’re hearing is him, a newly minted rap star whose prominence wasn’t enough to stop him from getting shot in the studio last year. YG doesn’t waste any time addressing his shooting, either. The album’s second song is called “Who Shot Me?,” and the title isn’t metaphorical. It’s a full track of YG glancing around in every direction, seething, theorizing over who might’ve been jealous enough to try to take him out: “Maybe it cuz I fucked Jamal bitch and I knew if he find out / Her scary ass was gon’ tell him about my hideout.” And while the situation he’s talking about is real, it’s also given him a chance to show off his sharpened storytelling, to convey all the doubts and details of his new situation. We get to hear his mind working: “Having a hard time putting together two and two / They was in a brand new truck, somebody sent them dudes.” And with that, an album that could’ve been a breezy victory lap turns into something harder and touchier.
Still Brazy isn’t an album about YG getting shot, but it’s not an album about him enjoying his success, either. Instead, he’s taking stock of the world around him, trusting nothing and seeing hatred anywhere. Some of this is standard rap shit-talk stuff. The most celebratory track on the album, the Drake/Kamaiyah collab “Why You Always Hatin’?,” still finds YG consumed with the idea that people are jealous of him, while “Don’t Come To LA” and the 2015 single “Twist My Fingaz” blast rap peers for playing around with the California gang signifiers that really are a part of YG’s life. (YG’s whole Blood habit of replacing c’s with b’s makes for easy jokes until you realize that, oh right, people get killed over that kind of thing.) From there, though, YG sees bigger problems, systemic ones.
Sometimes, he’s the problem. “She Wish She Was” is a blast of nasty, bracing misogyny, YG and his friends bragging about fucking in the same breath that they slut-shame the women they’re fucking. But more often, he’s talking about some heavier shit. The anti-Trump anthem “FDT” is a straight-up rap protest song, the type of thing we so rarely hear anymore, and album closer “Police Get Away With Murder” is a song written from a place of pure, righteous anger. “Black And Brown” is about intersectional pride, about the idea that the United States has shown, again and again, that it doesn’t really want any part of entire races of people. And on the smaller, more focused tracks, YG dials in on the way smaller interactions can lead to violence. “Bool, Balm & Bollective” is a story-song about smaller personal tensions that could easily spill out of control. On “Gimmie Got Shot,” YG is the aggressor, looking around and seeing people who want things from him, fantasizing violence if they don’t stop demanding things. On “Still Brazy“: “Paranoia got this Henny in my kidney / Cuz I don’t know if they with me or against me.” This isn’t a fun album.
And yet it’s a funky one. YG stopped working with DJ Mustard when he put together Still Brazy. Instead, he went to work with a crew of producers that included veteran West Coast jazz-head Terrance Martin, Iamsu! affiliate P-Lo, and the unknown-to-me DJ Swish and 1500 Or Nothin’. And even though there’s no one producer who controls the aesthetic of the album the way Mustard did last time, this is an album with an even stronger sonic identity than My Krazy Life. The new producers have kept Mustard’s icy precision, but they’ve slowed down the sound, thickening it. Musically, Still Brazy is immersed in the West Coast G-rap of the early ’90s, with its tense synth stabs and its magnificently slow-rolling basslines. (I would seriously enjoy an album that was just the isolated basslines from Still Brazy.) There are few superstar guests on Still Brazy — an on-fire Drake, a fresh and motivated Lil Wayne, nobody else — and there are no R&B singers whatsoever. YG never makes any obvious attempts at national radio play. Instead, he’s given us a cohesive, uncompromising piece of album-oriented rap music.
He’s gotten better as a rapper, too. YG’s never been showy, and he’s never tried to cram in syllables or wow you with his vocabulary. He’s a solid, muscular presence, and he relies on force and charisma rather than sophistication. But his writing has become more dense and economical. He can describe a situation — as on “Bool, Balm & Bollective,” when the just-out-of-jail brother of an ex comes looking for him — in a few quick flourishes of detail. And there’s more emotional emphasis in his delivery, too. He’s rapping about paranoia and injustice, and he sounds scared and aggrieved. That counts for a lot. He’s got a classically big, heavy West Coast voice, and he’s still finding new ways to use it.
And he makes you understand why he’s pissed, too. This isn’t a case where a rapper finds a little bit of success and then constantly bitches about haters — or, anyway, it’s not just that. Instead, it’s an album made by someone who’s gotten a little older, been around the country, and seen the fucked-up ways that black and brown people are treated everywhere. It’s music made by someone who gets more and more pissed-off the more he thinks about things. It’s the music of someone who watches Trump-rally footage on the news and thinks, “Oh, this is what they think of us.” In its own focused, intent way, it’s the To Pimp A Butterfly to My Krazy Life’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. It is, in short, an album that we need in the world right now.
1. Towkio – “Playin Fair” (Feat. Joey Purp)
The whole post-Chance wave of emphatic, empathetic, lyrically lyrical young Chicago rappers has been making so much fun music, and this is one of the most purely fun non-Chance songs that’s come out of it. I am quietly praying that the Lil Jon-style chanted chorus comes back, because it never stopped sounding amazing.
2. Dreezy – “We Gon Ride” (Feat. Gucci Mane)
Post-prison, Gucci continues two proud personal traditions: He recognizes promising up-and-coming rappers before anyone else, and he makes more songs with female rappers than any other prominent male rapper. Dreezy, from Chicago, seems primed to become very important, and Gucci already sounds like he never went away.
3. Black Milk – “The Fix”
Detroit’s greatest post-Dilla producer comes up with a beat that sounds like a tremendously blunted R2D2.
4. The Game – “All Eyez” (Feat. Jeremih)
Hijacking the title of Tupac’s greatest album to name his goofy, bouncy, fizzy love-rap might be the most Game thing that Game has ever done. Also: “Lame niggas hit you with the one-liner / All sounding the same, like Future and Desiigner.” Also also: The first Scott Storch production credit I’ve seen in years.
5. Fetty Wap – “Cold Summer” (Feat. Jugg Man & 4Ktay)
If Fetty Wap continues on this trajectory — going from making goofy crossover-pop to doing nothing but hard, grimy street records — he will become maybe the first prominent rapper ever to Benjamin Button the usual, expected career arc. He is pulling a never-seen-before reverse 50 Cent! Maybe he’ll start threatening other rappers by name next year!
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
FINALLY FOUND OUT WHERE YALL RECORD YALL MIXTAPES pic.twitter.com/dArQgMegLc
— The Kid Mero (@THEKIDMERO) June 18, 2016