NBA YoungBoy Is A Bleak Rap Star For A Bleak World
The videos never stop. They’re a constant stream, a deluge. As I’m writing this, the last one was three days ago. Cinematically, that video is nothing much. The imagery is static, even boring. It’s NBA YoungBoy, riding a shopping cart through a supermarket, throwing boxes of Cinnamon Toast Crunch at the camera. It’s NBA YoungBoy, flexing in the parking lot of a Krispy Kreme. It’s NBA YoungBoy, hunched over a stack of pancakes, a blunt in his hand. (The video does not seem to be specifically focused on breakfast foods, though I am sure that NBA YoungBoy enjoys them.) Right now, that video is at 1.7 million views. For YoungBoy, that’s a soft number. (The video he posted a day earlier, the “Dead Trollz” clip with all the guns in it, has twice as many views.) By the time you read this, that number will be much higher. By the time you read this, there will probably be another video or two on NBA YoungBoy’s YouTube page.
The artist officially known as YoungBoy Never Broke Again is a creature of YouTube. (The National Basketball Association didn’t appreciate him calling himself NBA YoungBoy, though that’s still what everyone calls him.) YoungBoy did not release an official album in 2019, and yet YouTube named YoungBoy the platform’s most-watched artist of the year. He’ll probably lock that distinction down again in 2020. YoungBoy posts new music videos constantly, and all of those videos do enormous numbers. Thus far this year, he’s released two mixtapes, February’s Still Flexin, Still Steppin and April’s 38 Baby 2. Last week, YoungBoy came out with Top — officially his second album, though he had already released 15 mixtapes over a five-year period. The SoundScan numbers haven’t come in yet, but Top is likely to be huge — quite possibly one of the year’s biggest albums. We’re going to have to figure out what that means.
YoungBoy is, a the very least, a jangled and disturbed person. He might be a dangerous one. YoungBoy’s legal woes are well-documented. In 2018, Florida police arrested YoungBoy on kidnapping, assault, and weapons charges. Shortly afterward, TMZ posted video of the incident that led to the charges: YoungBoy beating up a woman in a hotel hallway. At that point, YoungBoy was already on probation for taking part in a drive-by shooting. (YoungBoy was facing first-degree murder charges, but he pleaded down to aggravated assault with a firearm.) Last year, YoungBoy was involved in an argument that escalated into a shootout outside a car-rental place in Miami. One bystander was killed, and a few more were injured. YoungBoy ended up going to jail for three months for probation violation.
At the end of last year, a judge let YoungBoy out of house arrest early. YoungBoy moved from his Baton Rouge hometown to Los Angeles, with the understanding that he’d be better able to keep his act together there. Thus far, it seems to be working. There haven’t been any news stories about YoungBoy facing legal trouble in 2020, though that doesn’t mean that he’s settling down. Lately, YoungBoy has been feuding online with J. Prince, the founder of the Houston label Rap-A-Lot and one of the most feared behind-the-scenes figures in rap history. If YoungBoy intends to stay out of trouble, this is not a way to do it.
In recent years, we’ve seen a whole lot of young rappers accused of violence against women. It’s a depressingly common thing. Some of those rappers seem to actively encourage this sort of notoriety, acting like it’s the reason they’re famous. YoungBoy does not strike me as one of those rappers. He does not seem to be hungry for attention. But he’s hugely popular, and his obvious issues haven’t slowed his climb at all.
You can probably chalk a lot of that popularity up to the rebellious authority that comes with all that violence, all those arrests. To a certain kind of kid, that stuff makes YoungBoy a romantic figure. But you can’t ascribe YoungBoy’s level of success to edgelord provocation. YoungBoy is not Tekashi 6ix9ine. 6ix9ine recently got out of prison, released a string of singles with huge numbers of YouTube views, and pulled off the baffling feat of getting a song to #1 on the Hot 100. He clearly knows how to get attention. But does 6ix9ine have fans? That’s a whole lot less certain. A week and a half ago, 6ix9ine released the post-prison album TattleTales. The album bricked hard. It debuted at #4, and it racked up 33 million streams. Big Sean released an album on the same day, and Sean’s album has more than three times as many first-week streams as 6ix9ine’s.
We’ll find out in about a week, but I don’t think YoungBoy’s numbers will look like that. YoungBoy has fans. His context is all different. YoungBoy is part of a whole Southern wave that’s cresting right now — melodic rappers who sing about chaos and squalor and depression and violence. That raw, bluesy take on rap has been a part of the music for decades, but the recent proliferation comes from Future and, more directly, from Kevin Gates and Kodak Black, another deeply troubled figure. Right now, Lil Baby is easily the biggest star in rap, and he’s at least peripherally a part of this. But there are many more. Young rappers like Rod Wave and NoCap and YoungBoy’s frequent collaborator Quando Rondo moan about personal pain over acoustic-guitar flutters, and they rack up head-spinning YouTube numbers.
In a lot of ways, YoungBoy is a traditional Southern rapper. He’s more aggressive than a lot of his contemporaries. His flow his choppy and ferocious, and he’s got real technical command. He’s also good at hooks. He sings through Auto-Tune, but the Auto-Tune never dominates or smothers him. The only guests on Top are Snoop Dogg and Lil Wayne, two heritage figures old enough to be YoungBoy’s father. (Wayne is only 17 years older than YoungBoy, but Wayne’s daughter is a year older than YoungBoy.) Both Wayne and Snoop bring their A-games to their guest-verses. YoungBoy can hang with both of them.
Top is a good album. It’s more cohesive than YoungBoy’s mixtapes, and it gives some sense of focus to that constant stream of videos. The album rides. It sounds great in a car. The hooks stick. The beats have space and melody and thump. YoungBoy has energy and personality, and he can rap. But Top is also a depressing listen — partly because of YoungBoy’s story and partly because of what he’s saying. YoungBoy won’t turn 21 until next month, and he’s already been around more violence than any human being of any age should. That trauma is all over Top.
In his lyrics, YoungBoy never takes pleasure in his earnings or his accomplishments. Instead, he remains focused on perceived enemies. Every expensive thing he owns is something he can use to flex on someone else. Every slight deserves violent reprisal. Every woman is after his money. Every friend is either a shooter or a traitor. It’s a sad, cold, desolate album. Maybe you can’t fake that. Maybe that’s what people love about YoungBoy. He’s not numb. He’s a raw nerve, a throbbing ache. He feels everything.
YoungBoy Broke Again makes good music. I hear it, and I feel things — exhilaration, anger, loss, depression. But I also know that I’m hearing someone troubled, someone with demons. He’s a bleak rap star for a bleak world. YoungBoy’s history of violence isn’t the reason for his popularity, and yet that history is all bound up with his fame. That fame is a symptom of something dark. Take that in. Understand what it means. Don’t look away.
1. Small Bills – “Safehouse” (Feat. Fielded)
Elucid turns a state of being into a chant: “Tension. Tension. Tension. Tension.” Then the Afrobeat horns come in. The psychedelic funk of Michigan producer the Lasso is a great fit for Elucid’s gruff, poetic growl. This Small Bills album could be something special.
2. Aesop Rock – “The Gates”
Aesop’s production here — the blip-bloop synth loop, the proggy keyboard undulations, the Wu-Tang sample — is funky, in ways that we don’t often hear from him. He’s really rapping here, too — finding the pocket and everything. Aesop is still writing cryptograms at all waking hours, and he says here, and I still don’t get that much from his oblique head-trip lyrics. But I like the way these cryptograms look.
3. SHHH & Rio Da Yung OG – “TAB”
There is so much great rap music coming out of Michigan these days, but very little of it comes with memorable hooks. This song does not have that problem: “I’m a road-runnin’ dope-sellin’ trappin’-ass bastard!” That’s the type of shit that would be fun to yell with a whole crowd of people, if I could be around a whole crowd of people right now.
4. Your Old Droog & Tha God Fahim – “Brrt Simpson” (Feat. Left Lane Didon)
Every time a bunch of gifted rappers get together to talk laid-back shit over zoned-out horn loops, the world becomes a slightly more tolerable place.
5. ALLBLACK – “Pizza Rolls” (Feat. DaBoii & Cash Kidd)
Everyone goes crazy on this. The age-old Bay/Detroit connection pays dividends once again.