Cordae And The Prestige-Rap Problem

Raven Varona

Cordae And The Prestige-Rap Problem

Raven Varona

Cordae is a good rapper. Cordae has always been a good rapper, and “good rapper” has always been Cordae’s chief sales pitch. When Cordae first emerged from internet obscurity three and a half years ago, he seemed to be an exceptional type of good rapper. Back then, he was known as YBN Cordae, and his affiliation with the rest of the young-and-viral YBN Crew placed him within an insurgent SoundCloud-rap wave. In that context, Cordae’s twisty technical flows and writerly precision stood out. But now that he’s released his second major-label rap album, Cordae’s whole context has changed, and so has his presentation. These days, Cordae is still rapping well, but he’s channeled all that good rapping into securing a permanent place on awards-show nomination lists. Cordae is a prestige-rapper now.

The first Cordae song that went viral was a sharp reaction against previous generations’ rap values. When Cordae released “Old N***as” in May of 2018, it was a response to the brief little mini-beef between J. Cole and Cordae’s contemporary Lil Pump. Cordae, not quite 21 at the time, took issue with the patronizing tone that J. Cole and his contemporaries used to when they talked about the rappers of Cordae’s generation. Cordae shot back: “Lately, all my idols, they been failin’ me/ Catchin’ sexual assaults and some felonies/ Then you want me to listen what you tellin’ me?/ And wanna hate when we sing our lil’ melodies?”

The irony, I guess, was that Cordae was addressing those concerns in language that older rappers could understand, throwing out references to Black Star and rapping with the crisp elocution that the J. Coles of the world had lambasted the “mumble-rap” generation for forsaking. (Another irony: On the song, Cordae called out Kanye West for being a Trump supporter. A couple of years later, a delighted Trump would bring “Little Pimp” onstage at one of his rallies.)

On “Old N***as,” Cordae came off as a thoughtful young man speaking truth to power. The three letters at the start of his name said as much about his place in the rap universe as his lyrics on the song. Cordae’s friend YBN Nahmir had already come up in the world by spitting nonchalant gun-talk over Bay-style beats, and he’d carved out a space for the rest of the YBN Crew to make noise. Cordae’s “Old N***as” video debuted on the WorldStar YouTube network, which was its own kind of generational signifier. After “Old N***as” circulated, Cordae showed that he could do a lot more than stoke conversation. “Kung Fu,” the track that Cordae released a couple of years later, was a dizzying technical clinic, delivered with ridiculous levels of energy. “Old N***as” went viral and started to get attention. “Kung Fu” indicated that Cordae might be a star.

The YBN Crew were creatures of the internet — a geographically scattered collective who’d mostly met each other while playing video games online. Nahmir was from Alabama. Almighty Jay, who’d find tabloid semi-fame as the guy who dated Blac Chyna after she broke up with Rob Kardashian, was from Galveston, Texas. Cordae came from Maryland, and he was the only member of the group who hadn’t joined up via video games; instead, the rest of the YBN Crew had found out about him via SoundCloud, where he’d been releasing songs under the terrible name Entendre. Maybe the decentered nature of the YBN Crew kept those three rappers from ever becoming a fully cohesive unit. They released their YBN: The Mixtape soon after all three rappers started to break out. The tape went gold, and it showed real flashes of promise, but it didn’t really hang together. When Cordae released his debut album The Lost Boy a year later, he still had “YBN” in his name, but the other YBN guys weren’t on it.

The Lost Boy is a pretty decent debut album, but it’s got little of the heedless energy that Cordae brought to previous tracks like “Kung Fu” and “Scottie Pippen.” The album has some traces of what I’ve come to think of as Chance The Rapper Disease — the tendency, among certain young rappers, to chase middlebrow acclaim. (Chance himself appeared on one track.) There’s nothing exciting about The Lost Boy. Instead, it’s thoughtful and measured and polished. A year earlier, Cordae had come off as a potential mold-breaking talent. On The Lost Boy, he seemed a little too preoccupied with fitting a previous generation’s idea of what a great young rapper should be — playing the game by old rappers’ rules.

By sheer coincidence, The Lost Boy happened to come out on the same day as The Big Day, Chance The Rapper’s own spectacular faceplant of a major-label debut. In the moment, this meant that The Lost Boy was largely overlooked; a noisier and higher-profile album in the same mode had come out at the same time. But months later, Cordae was the long-shot recipient of two Grammy nominations — spots that presumably would’ve gone to Chance if Chance hadn’t utterly biffed his big shot. Cordae got a nice little boost from those nominations. He got another boost when he started dating the tennis star Naomi Osaka, coming off like a good guy when he cheered her on from the sidelines. They seem very cute together.

Cordae hasn’t really made any actual hits, but because of all that stuff in that last paragraph, he has a certain visibility that’s far beyond what most of his peers can claim. Last year, Cordae officially dropped the “YBN” from his name. The YBN Crew had fractured, and he was in a completely different career place than Nahmir or Almighty Jay. The split didn’t seem entirely friendly, but it wasn’t fully contentious, either. On his new album From A Birds Eye View, Cordae raps that he dropped the “YBN” from his name because he doesn’t own it, so managerial fuckery probably played a part there. (He does own “Cordae”; it’s his actual first name.) In any case, Cordae was the only member of the YBN crew who showed up in a Super Bowl commercial with Martin Scorsese and Jonah Hill last year.

On “Super,” the first single from his new album, Cordae takes a moment to revel in his own good fortune: “Last year, I made seven million/ Didn’t have to do a single fuckin’ show/ Shout out to my n***as up at Coca-Cola for the check they cut me at the Super Bowl.” This might’ve been the moment that I turned on the album. Racking up endorsements is one thing. Bragging about your endorsements on your own record is something else. On that same song, Cordae brags about being friends with a former Twitter CEO: “Last night, I was textin’ Jack Dorsey/ That’s the perks you get from being super dope.” Is that a perk? Are tech-bro billionaires really all that interesting? Does name-dropping a tech-bro billionaire make you less interesting? If that’s the perks you get, then I’m probably OK with not being super dope.

Cordae is 24 years old, and he came from Waldorf, Maryland to join a global jet-set elite. That’s not an easy thing to do, and it makes sense that Cordae is proud of himself. Jay-Z and Nas, Grammy-favorite rappers who are twice Cordae’s age, are currently fucking up their own legacies by making those same kinds of investment-portfolio raps, laboring under the unfortunate delusion that this kind of talk is somehow motivational. Cordae definitely wants to be considered among the ranks of guys like that. Last year, Cordae was on a Nas album and an Eminem album. Nas was supposed to be on From A Birds Eye View; for whatever reason, his feature on the Freddie Gibbs/Stevie Wonder collaboration “Champagne Glasses” did not make the final cut. Eminem is on the album, lending a typically long and ticcy verse to “Parables (Remix).” Cordae came into the game arguing with old rappers, and now he’s making a whole lot of songs with old rappers. That says something.

The sonic template of From A Birds Eye View is sedate and restrained, full of acoustic-guitar murmurs and muted trap percussion. On the Lil Wayne collab “Sinister,” Cordae lays out his goals: “I ain’t goin’ nowhere, 20-year career minimum/ Call Hit-Boy for beats, ask for 10 of ’em.” That’s exactly the issue. “Sinister,” it turns out, is the only Hit-Boy beat on the album. But all of the tracks fit the same elegantly-boring cocktail-jazz-rap mode as the beats that Hit-Boy has recently made for Nas or Big Sean or Benny The Butcher. Hit-Boy was once an exciting and rambunctious rap producer, but he’s now fully within the prestige zone, as well. That’s clearly where Cordae wants to be.

Another of the guests on From A Birds Eye View is the R&B singer-songwriter H.E.R. H.E.R. is undeniably talented, but I couldn’t sing you one of her songs if my life depended on it. Her career mostly seems to work as an endless procession of middlebrow awards-show appearances. I would hate to see Cordae end up in that same lane, but judging by From A Birds Eye View, that’s what he wants. I guess I don’t blame him. There’s clearly a stable future in that zone. It’s just not exciting. It’s boring. You can be a good rapper and still be boring.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. J.I.D – “Surround Sound” (Feat. 21 Savage & Baby Tate)
J.I.D and Cordae have similar styles, and they came up in similar ways, but they’re heading off in different directions. J.I.D could go the prestige-rap route, but thus far, he’s too restless and energetic to fall into that career path. “Surround Sound” is a dizzy, catchy showcase, and it’s got the fascinating spectacle of 21 Savage attempting to replicate J.I.D’s flow — mostly pulling it off, too.

2. Big Cheeko – “Spin Off” (Feat. Mach-Hommy)
In all of music history, very few people have ever looked cooler than Mach-Hommy with the flamethrower. I like how this relatively straightforward beat forces Mach to lock in tight, and I like how Atlanta’s Big Cheeko has enough gravitas to avoid being overwhelmed.

3. Rod Wave – “Cold December”
That Lil Durk/Morgan Wallen song has been doing big numbers, and I get it. It’s catchier than anyone wants to admit. But when we’ve got Rod Wave singing over a Hank Williams, Jr. sample, then we don’t really need that, do we? This is the promise of RMR’s “Rascal,” fulfilled.

4. Kevin Gates – “President”
Kevin Gates has the fire back in his eyes. Everybody else should be scared.

5. DaBoii – “Bananas”
Oooh-oooh, this my shit, this my shit.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO

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