For nearly 30 years, much of Los Angeles rap has been shaped by the same hand. Listing regional stars who've worked with Dr. Dre — Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Warren G, Nate Dogg, 2Pac, Kurupt, Xzibit, The Game, Kendrick Lamar — essentially serves as the CliffsNotes for the city's rap history from 1987 onward. The endorsement of the producer-rapper turned tech billionaire still holds so much weight that nascent artists such as King Mez and Anderson .Paak gained national notoriety after appearing on Dre's 2015 album, Compton.
But one of Compton's most renowned rappers has flourished without a beat or co-sign from the G-funk pioneer: YG. The hype surrounding his forthcoming sophomore album, Still Brazy, due out June 17, is deafening, extending to nearly every major hip-hop publication and even, due to his provocative lyrics, to agencies of the U.S. government.
Since 2008, the man born Keenon Jackson has left an indelible mark on L.A. rap. His earliest songs soundtracked the city's short-lived jerkin' dance movement, and his 2010 single "Toot It and Boot It" cracked Billboard's Hot 100 chart. After six months in jail for residential burglary, YG signed to Def Jam and flooded the streets with increasingly promising mixtapes, most largely produced by "ratchet" architect and longtime collaborator DJ Mustard.
YG's 2014 Def Jam debut, My Krazy Life, married Mustard's rubbery, Southern-inflected minimalism with the sonic hallmarks of West Coast rap and served as a national introduction to YG's jocular, conversational gangster narratives. It ranks as one of the most important rap albums of the 2000s, an uncompromising autobiography that chronicles the perennial hazards of Compton life and celebrates in spite of them.
It's also the reason that even East Coast publications have begun referring to the city as "Bompton," the "C" replaced with a "B" in a nod to YG's unflagging allegiance to the Bloods, specifically the 400 clique of the Tree Top Pirus.
Last June, YG was shot in the hip as he left a San Fernando Valley recording studio. Though no one has been apprehended, the rapper says he believes the shooting was not gang-related. The incident could have stalled his momentum, but instead, the proud father of one hobbled back into the studio 24 hours later.
"Twist My Fingaz," the resulting Terrace Martin–produced single, details the shooting and remains in heavy rotation on local radio (according to Def Jam, Power 106 once played it 17 times in a day). Though the song's grooves are cribbed from funk deities George Clinton and Roger Troutman, it snaps with freshness. While fellow Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar is bent on fusing everything from jazz to neo-soul, YG is poised to reinvent G-funk once again.
If Kendrick is L.A. rap's poet laureate, YG is its thug antihero. He's survived gang life, jail, the vicissitudes of the music industry, and a bullet. And, after years of reviving L.A. gangster rap, he still has something to say.
On a sweltering L.A. afternoon in early February, YG is cloistered and cool inside Snoop Dogg's recording studio. Housed in a nondescript brick compound in Inglewood, the studio is perhaps the most secure in the state. Preapproved guests must check in, pass through a seemingly impregnable gate, and submit to a bag search and pat-down.
The security measures give YG peace of mind. When asked how many people know he's here, the taciturn, heavily tattooed 26-year-old is quick to answer: "Not a lot. I'm not really doing too much or going nowhere. Motherfuckers don't really know where I'm at. I don't trust nobody."
After months of sold-out shows and a foray into film — YG wrote and directed Blame It on the Streets, a short film depicting many of the grim, often fatal realities discussed on My Krazy Life — he's devoted innumerable hours to recording Still Brazy. He spent several weeks in Atlanta and the Bay Area, cultivating relationships with producers such as London on da Track and HBK Gang's P-Lo.
But YG has returned to L.A. to finish the album. Though many studios denied him admittance in the wake of the shooting, he's found a home at Snoop's compound.
"I fell in love with this spot," he says. "This spot is lit."
Safety aside, YG's infatuation is understandable. Walking from the lobby to the studio is a surreal odyssey marked by long, gray, space station–like hallways and an unimaginable cache of Snoop Dogg–inspired prints and paintings. A sign over the studio's double doors reads "The Mothership," an obvious homage to George Clinton, whose image is featured alongside artists including Prince, Stevie Wonder and Nate Dogg in a massive cosmic collage opposite the doors. There's no mistaking that this studio is, as a scrawl on one corridor wall declares, "The Home of G-Funk."
Inside, clad in black from head to suede loafers, YG bobs uncontrollably in a swivel chair at the center of the studio. A coterie of producers and associates quietly orbits him as bass rattles bone. The large circular space is modeled after the command center from the earliest episodes of Star Trek, complete with an expansive production console and an elevated, red leather captain's chair.
Before his L.A. Weekly interview, YG runs through nearly a dozen songs he's considering for Still Brazy. A paranoid missive about his life post-shooting is followed by an impassioned screed concerning black-on-black crime and the injustices that perpetuate it; a touching open letter to his infant daughter succeeds a nihilistic song riddled with hollow-point retribution.
Like the music 2Pac released after being shot at Quad Recording Studios in 1994, the duality is as compelling as the inherent danger in making music that might incite further violence. Still, despite the poignancy of each song, none has officially made the cut.
"It's a feeling — the sound, the flow and the storyline. Does it fit the storyline? Is it cohesive?" YG says of his meticulous selection process. "There's levels to this shit. It's not just, 'What song sounds the best?' There are a lot of different elements."
One element that will not be present on Still Brazy is DJ Mustard. "No songs with Mustard on this album," YG says. Asked a second time, he shakes his head definitively.
Mustard's absence has nothing to do with the pair's brief public feud of a year ago. The rapper and the producer resolved their beef once and for all at this year's Coachella, when YG made a guest appearance during Mustard's DJ set. But musically, the two are on different paths.
Mustard has of late made inroads toward becoming an EDM and pop producer, a sound heard most recently on "Whole Lotta Lovin'," his single with Travis Scott. The songs YG plays in the studio, by contrast, fall in line with "Twist My Fingaz," each offering a contemporary analog to the G-funk of old. Sun-soaked synths, vocoder-filtered vocals and shimmering keys smack of the '90s, but they've been rearranged and matched with distinctly modern percussion.
If My Krazy Life stripped the proverbial lowrider down to its axles, Still Brazy aims to rebuild the ride with run-flat whitewalls and better mileage.
"He's aiming for a real specific vibe and story with this album," explains Brandon Moore, YG's longtime friend and manager. "We worked with Terrace Martin a lot. He comes from the school of Dr. Dre, Battlecat and all those guys. That's why you hear that sound."
Now highly regarded for his production and instrumentation on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, Martin also shaped much of My Krazy Life, playing keys, saxophone, bass and/or percussion on nine of the album's 14 songs. For Still Brazy, the two-time Grammy winner again oversaw much of the album's production and arrangement. (Other producers featured on the album include Hit-Boy, Ty Dolla $ign, CT Beats, DJ Swish and the aforementioned P-Lo.)
"It has elements of the past and strong, encouraging future things as well. It's a modern West Coast record," Martin says of the album. "YG is the balance to Kendrick Lamar. He is the only balance out here right now. He has his own lane, and he gets better and better. He represents the culture. He's one of the best artists I've worked with in my life."
Moore, of course, seconds Martin's unalloyed belief in YG's music and his ability to bridge the gap between past and present.
"YG is going to be himself," Moore says. "You got the old-school feel but it's still new. I don't think too many people can pull that off."
Before My Krazy Life, no one was sure that YG could even pull off an album. Outsiders often chalked up the delay to label politics. However, YG was his own biggest skeptic.
"I was telling my people that I wasn't putting out an album," he explains. "Def Jam was always trying to get me to put out an album because I had 'Toot It and Boot It.' They were trying to get me to turn in shit. I wasn't going for it because I felt like I wasn't ready for an album."
But YG didn't lie low while he kept Def Jam waiting. Annual mixtapes (Just Re'd Up, 4 Hunnid Degreez, Just Re'd Up 2) were released to escalating fanfare. Videos for mixtape hits like "I'm a Thug" and "I'm Good," which were released well before My Krazy Life's ubiquitous, Billboard-charting single "My Nigga," received millions of views, and local shows pre-2014 were packed affairs.
"We had the streets. We knew how to get shows. We knew how to make our music pop. But YG did not want to do an album," Moore says when discussing the nearly four years between YG's first Def Jam single and the release of My Krazy Life. "If I brought up the album, he would want to fight."
In the end, My Krazy Life proved to be both critically and commercially successful, selling more than 250,000 copies. The perfect foil to Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city, the album featured its own tightly structured narrative and reintroduced the world to gang life in Compton in the kind of stark, visceral terms only the initiated can convey.
"Before the album came, I really don't think people understood who YG was as an artist," Moore says. "Now there's been a whole cultural shift. You have rappers saying everything with B's now. Everybody is calling Compton 'Bompton.' Nobody was saying 'Bompton' before YG came out."
Given YG's gang allegiance, it's easy for detractors to dismiss his music. But to say that he only glorifies the violence perpetrated in the primary colors of the Bloods and Crips would be reductive and wrong. As he rapped on "Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin)" from My Krazy Life, "I ride around with my gun, this is not for fun/I stay protected 'cause my homie just took one to the lung/Had him on life support, with his family support/He knew who shot him, but he ain't even show up in court."
YG is a reporter, on the front lines of a war that the mainstream media still pay little attention to. (There have been 12 murders in Compton so far this year, including five in May. Most are suspected to be gang-related.)
"People done lost family members, cousins and homies," YG says. "It's deeper than what motherfuckers on the outside looking in [make it out to be]."
Of late, YG has made it his mission to effect change in Compton. He recently founded 4Hundred Waze, a nonprofit organization that provides youth from the foster care system with access to events that emphasize the importance of science, technology, math and higher education. The nonprofit, run by YG's mother, has received the support of Compton mayor Aja Brown.
While touring with J. Cole and Big Sean last summer, YG rented an extra tour bus for the sole purpose of bringing friends from his neighborhood on the road. That he actually lost money doesn't bother him. He sees it as an investment. "I want the homies around, so hopefully it sparks something or motivates them to do something, and [I want to] keep them out of the street."
As he wraps up the interview, YG plays another song. This time, he stops it midway and asks a producer behind the console to tinker with the beat. Despite his perfectionism and myriad other projects — his charity, his newly launched 4Hunnid clothing company, more plans to pursue film — he doesn't want to keep fans waiting, as he did for My Krazy Life. "It's about to be two years since my last album," he says. "This break will never happen again."
Then, of course, the album is pushed back. At the label, talk of an April release comes and goes. The original title, Still Krazy, gets changed. The primary reason for the delay was, again, YG.
Unlike with his debut, however, YG wasn't questioning his abilities. The idea of evading the dreaded "sophomore slump" never crossed his mind. Instead, he wanted to ensure that every song was essential, that none detracted from the album's cohesiveness.
"I've been adding records; I've been tweaking records," he says later by phone. It's the last week of May and YG is relaxing in Hollywood before he heads to the studio to finish arranging the album and approving final masters. "In the last couple days of going in and tweaking shit, the album started to change at the end. I had to take songs off and move [some tracks] around."
Somehow, these incessant revisions didn't prevent YG from recording one of the most urgent, topical records of his career: "Fuck Donald Trump." Released in March, the single is as blunt as its title (and subject). Repeating a hook that turns the title's succinct anti-Trump sentiment into a rallying cry, YG and fellow L.A. rapper Nipsey Hussle voice the concerns of disenfranchised minorities in Los Angeles and beyond.
Like YG's best songs, the words are pointed and without pretension: "He too rich, he ain't got the answers/He can't make decisions for this country, he gon' crash us/No, we can't be a slave for him/He got me appreciatin' Obama way more."
In addition to maligning the blatant racism of the Republican Party's sole remaining presidential candidate, the duo encourages unity between their respective gangs — Hussle is an avowed member of the Rollin 60s Crips — and L.A.'s African-American and Latino communities. It's a sociopolitical triptych that would feel forced and self-righteous in the wrong hands, but YG and Hussle trade the preachiness of the soapbox for the inclusivity of an organized march.
"Me and Nip talk about various stuff we need to do, but we always get blackballed by the police — shows get canceled and all types of stuff because of what represent," YG says. "So we were hesitant about taking it to the next level and press the line. Then we were like, 'Fuck that. We have to. This shit is getting carried away.' It seemed like everybody else was too scared to say something, to speak on how the people really feel."
Their worry about police interference proved well-founded. Three separate shooting locations for the "Fuck Donald Trump" music video were shut down by the LAPD. Fortunately, YG and Nipsey were able to get the shots necessary to release it. To date, the April-released video has more than 5 million views on WorldStarHipHop. When Trump held a rally in Costa Mesa in April, footage surfaced online of protesters blasting the song from car stereos.
While YG is elated that the song has become an anthem for anti-Trump activists, his chief concern is polling attendance. "More important than that is that everybody votes. That's really the shift we're hoping for with this," he says. "All of our people have to vote. If they don't vote, all of the shit we think we're doing doesn't mean nothing."
For unexpected reasons, "Fuck Donald Trump" did play a role in Still Brazy's delay. YG claims that after the song's release, the U.S. Secret Service requested that Def Jam's parent company, Universal, send over all of the album's lyrics. Universal complied, lyrics to "Fuck Donald Trump" were changed at the Secret Service's behest, and YG agreed to record a censored version of the instigating song. (Def Jam did not respond to requests to confirm this.)
Luckily, the controversy has been cleared up. Still Brazy is now firmly slated for a June 17 release. No matter how many permutations and refinements, no matter how many unintended delays, the album now remains nearly unrivaled in the "most anticipated rap album of the year" conversation.
"Every studio session I go to, everybody wants to know what the YG record sounds like," Martin says. "People want to hear what he has to say. His honesty, truth and aggression is something that the West Coast has been missing."
This summer, after his top-billed performance at Power 106's Powerhouse on June 3, YG will open for Logic and G-Eazy on their Endless Summer Tour. The number of attendees who listen exclusively to YG probably is small, but he'll undoubtedly gain hordes of new fans.
No one else has his ear to the pulse of the people quite like YG does right now. The sentiments and ideas he expresses are often the same as those expressed in the near-universally lauded music of Kendrick Lamar. The words are fewer and more direct, coded only by their deployment of Bompton argot; the beats equally progressive but more focused.
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It's now well over two years since YG's first album. But when asked how he feels about Still Brazy, the Bompton rapper has never sounded more assured. "It's another classic."
POWER 106'S POWERHOUSE | Honda Center, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim | Friday, June 3, 6 p.m. | $55-$415 | power106.com/powerhouse