Status Ain't Hood

YG Doesn’t Even Have To Try Hard Anymore

Has any rapper this decade outperformed expectations as thoroughly as YG? For years, YG prowled the Los Angeles G-rap underground, cranking out mixtapes and releasing exactly one hit, the just-OK 2009 track “Toot It And Boot It.” But eventually, YG teamed up with DJ Mustard, whose clipped and propulsive sound was coming to dominate West Coast rap and give it a sudden burst of commercial potential. YG and Mustard made hits together, and those hits were great. But for 2014’s My Krazy Life, his first proper album, YG didn’t just rely on his hits or his chemistry with Mustard. Instead, he made a quietly ambitious day-in-the-life concept album that remains one of the best rap full-lengths of the past few years.

That was a hell of a trick, but it didn’t seem like the kind of thing YG could repeat. He didn’t. And yet he still followed up My Krazy Life with another ridiculously strong album. 2016’s Still Brazy, made without the help of the then-estranged Mustard, tapped into deeper, older strains of West Coast rap. And it also found YG ferociously interrogating his new status as a rap celebrity, lashing out at, for instance, whoever shot him in the studio a little while before the album came out. And he also took a wider view, attacking police violence and, in the most visceral and instinctive protest song in recent memory, then-candidate Donald Trump.

YG is, you might say, a limited rapper. He doesn’t have the breathtaking technical prowess or wild imagination of, for instance, Kendrick Lamar, his fellow Compton native and occasional collaborator. He never shows off; he’s just a solid and charismatic mic presence who knows his way around a hook. And yet he made those gifts pay off. Through vision, intensity, and canny songwriting, he pulled off a truly stunning two-album run. On Friday, YG came out with Stay Dangerous, his third album. It’s the least ambitious of his three albums, and probably also the least rewarding. It’s still a monster. YG has now reached the point as a rapper where he doesn’t need to conscientiously craft classics. He’s got the confidence, and the effortless mastery, to just make an album full of bangers.

The first line on “10 Times,” the first track on Stay Dangerous, is this: “Fuck the DA, fuck the PO, fuck the president, fuck the po-po.” But that’s not a thesis statement. It’s more of a throat-clearing. With that said, YG is free to go in on whatever he wants. For most of the album, YG doesn’t concern himself with larger societal issues, even if those issues offer plenty to rap about. YG isn’t Immortal Technique. He cares about that stuff, but it’s not his focus. And he devotes most of Stay Dangerous to talking about fucking or to threatening to kill you — the same things, then, that he was rapping about a decade ago, when he was one more LA mixtape rapper. On the album, we get a lot of this: “Yeah the dick was good, she harassed me / Yeah, and then I nutted on them ass cheeks.” Or this: “If you a bad bitch, I fuck you to my own music.” Or even this awkward-ass line: “That pussy limited edition, Eddie Bauer.” (I know he’s talking about custom Ford Explorers, but it’s more fun to imagine that he’s relating the female anatomy to some water-resistant chinos.)

YG’s return to his old focus feels like a bit of a regression, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for losing interest. But YG’s never exactly been a mature rapper. What made his last albums resonate the way they did is that they came from the gut; they weren’t political triangulations. And all the talk about sex and guns on Stay Dangerous comes from the gut, too. YG has one of rap’s great voices, a self-assured and playful husky boom. And on Stay Dangerous, he sounds calm and casual, like he’s having fun. He’s got the tough-guy dirtbag charisma to pull it off.

Stay Dangerous marks YG’s reunion with Mustard, who has dropped the “DJ” from his name and who is not the same producer he was in 2014. Mustard still favors crisp handclaps and controlled bursts of bass, but he’s opened his sound up a bunch, no longer relying on the dinky one-finger synth riffs that once stood as his trademark. His sound is thicker and more melodic. It’s taken on elements of Atlanta trap without ever becoming Atlanta trap. And when other producers like Mike Will Made-It show up on Stay Dangerous, they seem like they’re trying to keep up with the revamped Mustard.

And even if Mustard’s production has changed, he and YG still have that rare and ideal rapper/producer chemistry. There’s a great moment on the song “Bulletproof” where YG has already rapped the first couple of lines of the verse, sounding strong over what would’ve been a perfectly decent Mustard beat. But a few seconds in, there’s a quick hiccup, and this absolutely sinister melodic bass tone shows up, changing the entire chemical structure of the song. It’s a subtle adjustment, but it makes the song punch so much harder. YG and Mustard seem to know exactly when and how to tweak a track like that.

With Mustard’s expanded palate, YG sounds less definitively West Coast than he’s done on his past few records. Some of the album’s guests come from the standard rap-feature turntable: Quavo, 2 Chainz, A$AP Rocky, Nicki Minaj, Big Sean. They all sound fine next to YG. But some of the album’s strongest moments are the ones where YG sounds the most definitively West Coast. That’s when he’s snarling about gang politics and defiantly asserting that “my enemies sing my songs.” It’s also when he goofs off, calling himself “too much for you poo-butts” or “a gangbangin’-ass dad.” It’s when he’s rapping next to fellow West Coast standbys like Jay 305, Mozzy, or his old “Toot It And Boot It” collaborator Ty Dolla $ign. YG is a part of the rap firmament now; he’s not an insurgent anymore. But even on cruise control, he’s one of the strongest voices out there.

It’s worth noting one guy who does not show up on Stay Dangerous. YG’s last two albums both had guest features from Drake; the two always sounded totally enthused to be around each other. On Stay Dangerous, Drake is absent. You can always tell where the rap zeitgeist is moving by paying attention to what Drake does. And Drake is on one rap album that came out on Friday: Travis Scott’s star-heavy opus Astroworld. Drake goes where the cultural energy is, and right now, that energy is with Travis Scott, not YG. That’s fine. At this point, YG doesn’t need cultural energy, and he doesn’t need Drake. He can make great rider music all on his own.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Homeboy Sandman & Edan – “Grim Seasons”
Edan is making tense, tingly chopped-up psychedelia. Homeboy Sandman is painting vividly stressed-out scenarios. They just work together. This combination has the potential to be something really special.

2. Queen Key – “Toes Out” (Feat. King Louie)
Nearly a decade after its emergence, Chicago drill has become, among other things, only the most vicious form of laid-back summer-afternoon party music. This is a beautiful development.

3. Daveed Diggs & Rafael Casal – “Easy Come, Easy Go”
When actors can rap like this, rappers better look the fuck out. (I know Diggs is a rapper, too. I’m just saying.) Also, it’s pretty amazing to hear Diggs in pure flex-mode after years of doing brain-shattering experimentalism with clipping.

4. Asian Doll – “Easy Come, Easy Go”
You know how those Diamond and Princess verses from “Knuck If You Buck” come on and you just want to immediately kick your best friend in the face? (Maybe that’s just me.) Anyway, this is that.

5. ALLBLACK – “Y.N.A.F.” (Feat. Rexx Life Raj & Cash Kidd)
A virtuosic three-way burst of classic Bay Area motormouth shit-talk. If E-40 ever retires — and I really hope he doesn’t — there will still be plenty of rappers happy to keep his approach alive.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO